Tony Saldana’s face beamed with joy and tears rolled down his face in a moment that clearly went beyond himself.
Following Dalton High School’s state title victory this past May and the completion of a perfect season as the No. 1-ranked team in the country, the senior midfielder let out all of his emotions as he took the championship trophy and rushed toward the stands.
“It’s definitely something I won’t forget,” Saldana said. “There were a lot of people who helped us get there and I appreciate all of them.”
On a team littered with talent, including the 2019 Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year Omar Hernandez, it’s hard for any one player to stick out above the rest. As a young man, Saldana watched his older brothers help win state titles for Dalton hoping one day he would be able to do the same. He saw friends and former teammates like Hernandez and Kobe Perez win multiple accolades of their own.
Now, with that elusive state title under his belt, Saldana can add another piece to his own resume by being named the 2019 Daily Citizen-News Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
“I don’t know what to really say,” Saldana said. “I’m definitely excited. I’ve had friends that have won it before, and I think everyone around me has helped me to do it. I’ve worked for it, but playing with intelligent people on the field, I really appreciate that, too.”
From the opening match of the season, Saldana played his last year as Catamount with a fire that even the casual observer could see. He finished the season with 11 goals and 13 assists, but more importantly, it seemed the season’s biggest moments were when Saldana shined brightest.
“The state championship, it felt like the Tony Saldana show out there,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said.
It was Saldana who sent a through ball to Hernandez to score the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Vestavia Hills (Alabama) in the third match of the season. It was Saldana who immediately responded with a game-tying goal of his own after Dalton fell behind Northview in a tightly-contested first-round playoff matchup for the eventual win, 2-1. It was Saldana who scored twice in the state championship game, a 4-1 victory over Gainesville, but even then, it was his leadership which played a vital role for Dalton en route the program’s fifth state title.
Cheaves said the 2019 group of seniors was the best group of leaders he’s ever coached, and said it was Saldana who led the way. According to Cheaves, Saldana helped show the younger players how to prepare, and did so with more than his words.
“Tony brought leadership on an amazing level,” Cheaves said. “He has natural leadership qualities and he seems to hold the other guys accountable. Other guys respect him. He’s not just gonna say something and not do it himself. I think it’s a good choice, him being named player of the year, because so much of what he’s done speaks for itself.”
Saldana will attend Carson-Newman University, a Division II school in Jefferson City, Tennessee, this fall on a soccer scholarship. Hernandez, who is already enrolled in classes at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina after accepting a soccer scholarship, said Saldana’s influence on the Dalton soccer program began long before his goals scored in the state championship.
“Honestly, I think he deserves it,” Hernandez said. “His work ethic is comparable to nobody. He pushes everyone and expects a lot from everybody. He was a really great leader for us both on and off the field.”
Late in the state championship game, with time winding down and Dalton’s victory all but assured, Cheaves began to substitute out his starters. One by one, the older players were replaced by younger players, and when the final whistle blew one senior was still on the field leading the Catamounts — Saldana.
Saldana credits a number of people with helping him improve as a player, but none more than his father, Israel Saldana. The father and son spent hours in the front yard training to improve Saldana’s endurance through squats and endurance training, and according to the son, the work ethic displayed during his time at Dalton can be directly attributed to his father.
“He didn’t have the opportunity like I did and I try to work hard because I see how he works,” Saldana said. “Just the way I see him at his age, 55, still running three miles a day, it’s awesome. He says he’s fat, but when I’m that age I’ll probably be laying around doing nothing. He’s been a living example for me.”
The brotherhood created between teammates is what Saldana said he will remember most about this past soccer season. Even with the season long over, Saldana says all it takes is a phone call or two to corral a number of players to the Dalton Recreational Fields for pickup games, which occur on a regular basis. He said he hopes the tradition of Dalton soccer will continue long into the future and he clearly takes pride in a community which continues to produce highly talented players year in and year out.
“I have family who live in other places, they just ask me “How?,’” Saldana said. “They want to know how we have so many good players in one area. And just in one school district, who aren’t moving to play for a different school. We grow up here and we play for Dalton. I just say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got some ballers up here in north Georgia.’”