Technically, Dalton High School's soccer team entered the 2021 season as the defending state champions.
The Catamounts took home the Class 6A crown in 2019 with a 23-0 record, then their chances at repeating were wiped out when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the cancelation of much of the 2020 regular season and the state tournament.
The 2021 squad had many new faces to go with some holdovers from the Cats' last championship run, but Dalton still was saddled champions' expectations of "defending" the 2019 Class 6A championship.
"They had a lot to overcome and a lot of chemistry to build, but they played excellent," Dalton head coach Matt Cheaves said.
An excellent season ended again with an undefeated Dalton team and a delayed championship repeat. A 3-2 victory over Johns Creek in the finals earned the Catamounts (20-0-2) their second consecutive title and sixth as a program.
Aside from a couple of matchups against an in-county foe, the 2021 season was full of convincing wins for that new-look Dalton team that quickly started winning like the old champion teams.
Prior to the playoffs, every Dalton win came with a margin of at least three goals, save for a 3-2 victory over Region 5-6A foe Alexander. That was by far the closest call the Catamounts had in region play, though. Dalton finished 7-0 in the region, wrapping up the region title.
The toughest tests the Catamounts had in the 2021 regular season came against cross-town rival and eventual Class 4A state champion Southeast Whitfield.
The teams played two games — 160 minutes of game time. But, a winner couldn't be decided in either.
A February game ended in a 1-1 draw at Dalton, then the regular-season finale for each team in April concluded with a 3-3 tie after Dalton's Ivan Ceja booted a long-range shot to tie the game up late.
The clashes against Southeast were a playoff warmup for Dalton, which earned an easy victory in round one with a 7-1 win over Winder-Barrow.
The Sweet 16 saw Dalton's closest playoff contest until the championship round. Playing at home against Riverwood, Dalton scored two goals in the first 17 minutes while holding Riverwood off the board, but couldn't add to the lead for the remainder of a game that Riverwood almost tied with a couple of late chances. The 2-0 score remained at halftime, but a Riverwood goal midway through the second cut the lead to 2-1. A Riverwood player had the ball in front of an empty net with about 10 minutes to play, but sent a shot, along with any upset chances, wide and collapsed in frustration.
Dalton survived in round two, but got back to domination in the Elite 8 against Tucker.
Dalton led 1-0 through much of the first half, but a long-ranger from near the midfield stripe from Fernando Guerrero with 43 seconds before the break caromed its way past a stumbling goalkeeper and into the net, giving the Catamounts a 2-0 lead and even more momentum headed into the second half. They added two more goals in the second to cruise into the Final Four.
In the state semis, Dalton and Lakeside-DeKalb were locked in a 1-1 contest at halftime before the Catamounts burst through with four second-half goals. Dalton led 4-1 before a Lakeside score cut it to 4-2, but the Catamounts added another to secure their spot in the state finals again.
The state championship game was at McEachern High School in Powder Springs, the same stadium in which Dalton won its 2019 championship.
The game seemed like it could head for Catamount disaster early, after a turnover led to a Johns Creek goal just a few minutes in. Dalton righted the ship, though, and a Guerrero goal tied the game. A few minutes before half, Filemon Quintero tried a shot, had it blocked, then leapt into the air to fire another that wouldn't be denied, giving the Catamounts a 2-1 advantage at half.
Just after half, the Catamounts broke open the game.
Yahir Paez fielded the kickoff, then booted a downfield pass that hit Zeke Ortiz in stride. Ortiz split two defenders then fired a shot. The Johns Creek keeper got a hand on the ball, but not enough to redirect it out of the net.
Nine seconds into the second half, Dalton had a 3-1 lead. Johns Creek scored later to cut it to 3-2, but that perfect Dalton opening to the second half was too much to overcome.
It took two years, but Dalton can now call itself two-time defending champions.