It took until the second half for Dalton High School to separate itself from Pope High School, but once it did, the Catamounts left no room for doubt.

Dalton defeated Pope 6-1 at Harmon Field on Tuesday night in the semifinals of the Class 6A boys soccer playoffs. With the win, Dalton (22-0) kept its perfect record intact while at the same time giving the school a chance at winning its first soccer state championship since 2015. Dalton plays Gainesville on either Friday or Saturday at either Mercer University in Macon or McEachern High School in Powder Springs. The game day, time and location will be announced today.

“It feels great, but we’re not done yet,” Dalton coach Matt Cheaves said. “I think we just wore them out in the last 10 minutes or so.”

With 30 minutes left in the game, Pope’s Daniel Starysh scored past Dalton goalkeeper Nestor Mendez and cut the Catamounts’ lead to 2-1. The moment of uncertainty for Dalton fans was brief, as Nathan Rincon scored one minute later to recapture the momentum for the Catamounts. Dalton outscored Pope (15-4-3) 4-0 in the final 30 minutes. Six players scored a goal for the Catamounts.

The match was physical from the start, and early into the first half Dalton senior defender Ivan Mora left the game with an apparent knee injury. Mora did not return, but it was another one of Dalton’s senior leaders who quickly established himself as the difference maker. With 28 minutes left in the first half and match tied at 0, Dalton’s Omar Hernandez found a yard of space at the top of the penalty box and drilled a shot past the Pope goalkeeper giving Dalton a 1-0 lead.

“It felt amazing because the past few games I’ve been really frustrated because I had been hitting the post so many times,” Hernandez said. “It got my confidence back up, and it felt really good to see it hit the back of the net.”

Dalton led 1-0 at the half, and took a 2-0 lead early in the second half when Damian Rodriguez scored on a rebound following senior Tony Saldana's free kick. Whether scoring from the run of play, on the counter attack or from a set piece, Dalton demonstrated its offensive depth and versatility. Saldana said being able to play one last match was the team’s driving force, but said reaching a state championship meant even more for him.

“For me this is a big thing, because my brothers have won state championships and they rub it in my face all the time,” Saldana said smiling. “It’s time I follow their steps, and right now we’re working for one thing. It doesn’t matter who scores, and I’m perfectly fine scoring no goals the whole season as long as we win every game.”

Mora said he was told he likely sprained his MCL, and his status for the state championship match is questionable. As he left the field, Mora told Saldana to help lead the team in his absence, and for a pair of players who have played together since childhood the moment was impactful.

"He said we had to hold it down for him, and it really hit me deep in my heart," Saldana said. "After that I knew I had to step it up and pick it up for him. We had to let him know we were still in this and he's a big part of that. We've gotten one step closer and yeah we will celebrate tonight, but the celebration is only temporary."

The Catamounts were without another player in senior Harrison Fraire, who was suspended after receiving a red card in last week's quarterfinal win. He will also have to sit out the state championship game.

Hernandez assisted on Rincon’s goal which gave the Catamounts the 3-1 lead, and as the match drew to a conclusion it was Dalton over and again that made Pope pay for defensive lapses. Ricardo Bahena, Christian Cordova and Miguel Perez each finished goals for the Catamounts. Following the final whistle the Dalton student section rushed the field to celebrate with the players.

The Dalton crowd and community support were noticeable, with both the coach and players saying it has helped propel the team all season. Cheaves said the atmosphere never gets old.

“It puts chills down my spine, it really does,” Cheaves said. “When I grew up playing soccer there were a couple parents and a couple girlfriends in the stands. It’s just the culture here.”

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