Dalton High soccer

Dalton High School’s Zeke Ortiz puts in a goal against River Ridge in the Class 6A semifinals Friday.

The Dalton Catamounts will have a shot at their third state championship in four years after pulling away from River Ridge in the second half of Friday’s state semifinal, 5-1.

These players “find a way to win, and I’m very proud of them,” said Matt Cheaves, Dalton’s head coach. “Yahir Paez, we moved him all around tonight,” and he excelled everywhere he played, “Zeke Ortiz had two goals and played great, but, really, it was a team effort.”

“We finished our chances tonight,” Cheaves added. “We corrected issues, and we’ve done that all season.”

Ortiz also pointed to “finishing our chances” Friday, and also earning more quality opportunities, said the junior midfielder. The Catamounts executed “our game plan,” which meant those scoring chances came easier.”

Dalton plays for its seventh state title since 2003 Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Mercer University in Macon against Lassiter, which beat Central Gwinnett Friday, 2-1, in the other half of the bracket.

At Harmon Field Friday, the Knights — champions of Region 7-6A — gave the Catamounts crowd an anxious moment early, but goalkeeper Israel Soria was able to cover the ball seconds before River Ridge’s Matthew Dean could get a foot on it and perhaps put the visitors ahead. The Catamounts, whose last playoff loss was May 2, 2018, struck first on a goal by Fabian Rodriguez with 29:36 remaining in the opening half. The goal was set up by Fernando Guerrero, who made an impressive steal, then demonstrated adroit footwork to penetrate deep into River Ridge territory and scramble their defense, which helped open room for the senior forward to boot the ball into the top left corner.

Rodriguez paid it forward later in the half, when he beat his defender and fed senior Pablo Castillo, who buried it into the net with 14:37 remaining in the first half. Castillo then sprinted to the Dalton student section into a wall of jubilant cheers with his arms outstretched to his sides like an ecstatic airplane.

Soria elevated high into the air to snag a dangerous header with seven minutes left in the first half, and Dalton’s David Saldana fired just wide of the net with two minutes left to keep the score 2-0 at intermission.

The Knights cut the deficit in half five minutes into the second half on a penalty kick by Samuel Pacheco, but Ortiz provided breathing room for the home side with his first of two goals with 23:07 left in the contest.

Paez “had the ball, and I knew there was space behind the defender, so I ran to it,” Ortiz said. “He saw me, and the shot went in” past freshman goalkeeper Gracen Vanglider.

Less than two minutes later, Paez iced the game with his goal, served up to him on a throw-in by Angel Salaises. Ortiz added insurance with his second goal with 13:27 remaining to push the lead to 5-1.

“I read it, and (the pass) was on a plate for me,” he said. Then, “I chipped it over” for the goal.

The Catamounts (17-1-3) were Class 6A state champions in 2019 and 2021, with no tournament conducted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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