POWDER SPRINGS — As players rushed the field and fans stirred in celebration, the Dalton High School three-man senior midfield of Omar Hernandez, Ivan Mora and Tony Saldana formed a tight embrace around one another.
After accomplishing a goal they laid out for themselves as freshmen, their emotions welled into tears.
“I remember when coach (Matt) Cheaves put us three on varsity our freshman year, and he told us we couldn’t leave high school without winning a ring,” Saldana said. “Honestly, this feels amazing.”
Dalton won the Class 6A Georgia High School Association boys soccer state championship on Saturday by defeating Gainesville High School 4-1 at McEachern High School. Playing in hot and humid conditions, the Catamounts picked apart Gainesville, and as a result finished their season with a perfect 23-0 record and the school's first boys soccer state championship since 2015.
Mora sat out Saturday's game after suffering a knee injury in Dalton’s Final Four match on Tuesday. Saldana said the team would have never reached the championship game without Mora, and recognized Mora’s importance as a supporter from the sideline against Gainesville.
The duo of Hernandez and Saldana, however, made their presence felt on the field.
The match went scoreless through the first 20 minutes as both sides attempted to find a weakness in their opponent’s back line. Following a less than-20 minute water break, Hernandez took a long throw-in from the right side of the field and freshman Yahir Paez found the end of it with his head. Paez left the Gainesville goalkeeper frozen with a perfectly placed ball to the side netting, and from that point on the Catamounts seemed to play with the confidence they’ve had all season.
Over the next 10 minutes, Saldana scored twice more for Dalton, both on headers off set pieces taken by Hernandez.
Following the match, Saldana took the championship trophy and held it high above his head as he ran toward the Dalton fan section. Saturday was a day he said he’s been waiting for since he watched from the stands as the Catamounts won three consecutive state titles from 2013 to 2015.
“I was there for all three of those state championship games,” Saldana said. “It’s crazy, half of Dalton came here today.”
Dalton took a 3-0 lead into halftime, and Cheaves said being able to freely substitute a number of fresh players throughout the game made the difference. Dalton’s junior midfielder Manny Prieto put the Catamounts up 4-0 midway through the second half, and the final 20 minutes felt more like a coronation for Dalton than a competition. Gainesville got on the scoreboard with 11 minutes left in the game, when Alexander Mozqueda finished past Dalton goalkeeper Nestor Mendez. But as the final 10 minutes ticked away, Dalton emptied its bench in preparation for the inevitable result.
After the match, Cheaves said this year's senior class for Dalton soccer was without a doubt the best group of leaders he's ever coached. Prieto, whose smile rarely left his face following the match’s conclusion, concurred with Cheaves’ assessment of the Catamounts’ seniors.
Besides Hernandez, Mora and Saldana, the Catamounts will also loses seniors Christian Cordova, Harrison Fraire, Jose Moreno, Elvis Perez, Nathan Rincon and Miguel Valladares.
“With them, you always have someone pushing you, you always have someone motivating you,” Prieto said. “They’ve always supported us through everything and it’s an amazing feeling to have teammates supporting you like that.”
Saturday’s win was Dalton’s fifth state championship in boys soccer. The Catamounts began the season as the No. 1-ranked team in the country according to USA TODAY, and despite the pressure that comes with such a lofty ranking the players never seemed to be phased by the expectations. Fraire, who was unable to play on Saturday due to a two-game red card suspension from the Catamounts’ Elite Eight match, said a singular focus to win a state championship is what drove the team.
“We didn’t let that ranking affect us,” Fraire said. “Yeah, it's a big target on your back, but we just worked harder every single day to get to this point. This feels great, it’s really unreal.”
After a handful of team photos, the Dalton fans followed the players to a small corridor to the side of the field. The celebration continued for a half an hour before the team made its way back to the bus, but not before numerous fans took pictures with players and with the state championship trophy.
For Cheaves, who completed his 25th season as Dalton's coach on Saturday, the postgame scene was extremely meaningful to players and himself.
“I’m really glad for this group of seniors because they came in following that 2015 run,” Cheaves said. “This group reestablished the expectations of our program as far as work ethic.
“When I came up and became a coach, this is the kind of thing I wanted to see as far as the passion for soccer and people coming out to support it. There’s just so many opportunities for soccer these days and we’re very blessed to have another state championship at Dalton.”