In six of the past seven years, a high school from Whitfield County has claimed a state title in boys soccer.
The boys soccer teams from three local high schools -- Coahulla Creek, Dalton and Southeast Whitfield -- made the Final Four in their classifications during the state playoffs this spring, with Dalton winning its fifth state championship. The area is also producing players capable of receiving national recognition, with Dalton alum Omar Hernandez recently being named the Gatorade National Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
How have the local high school teams been able to maintain such success?
Despite losing standout players like Hernandez to graduation, the local high schools haven't had a problem replenishing their ranks with talented players. Contributing to these annual rejuvenations has been a local youth soccer club that has been winning titles of its own.
The Correcaminos Futbol Academy (CFA) is in its third year, and Kerem Daser, the former director of soccer at Dalton State College, serves as the president and director of coaching for the Dalton-based club. Since starting the club in 2016, Daser has presided over eight teams that have won Georgia Soccer state titles. Georgia Soccer is the authorized state youth and adult soccer association underneath the umbrella of the United States Soccer Federation.
CFA had two teams win a Georgia Soccer State Cup earlier this month, one at the National League level and one at the Classic-1 level. The National League level is the highest level of organized youth soccer in the state. Playing one step below at the Classic-1 level, the CFA Under-14 boys team defeated the Rome Arsenal 3-1, and playing at the National League level the Under-16 boys defeated the Alpharetta Ambush 3-1. By winning the State Cup, the teams qualified for the U.S. Youth Soccer Southern Regional Championships. Both teams leave today for the tournament that is held in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, from Friday through June 27.
The Southern Regional Championships exist as a part of the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship Series, the country's oldest and most prestigious national youth soccer tournament. For a team from Whitfield County with a population of a little more than 100,000 to compete at a regional level in U.S. Youth Soccer is an accomplishment itself.
"We went to Greenville, South Carolina, last year and won five games (in the regional tournament)," Daser said. "In the semifinals we played a team from Dallas. Imagine that. Dallas has a population of about four million and there are about 50 to 60 thousand here in Dalton. We won 3-1.
"Then we went to the final (game of the regional tournament) and played a team from Miami, another city with a population in the millions. We won 4-1. We pounded them."
Two other CFA teams in the Classic-2 level -- one level below Classic-1 and two levels below the National League level -- also competed recently on a national stage. The CFA Classic-2 Under-17 and Under-16 boys teams both traveled to Round Rock, Texas, this past weekend, with the Under-17 team finishing as the South Region's runner-up.
Those local high school teams that are winning state titles and reaching the Final Four? Many of their best players are CFA players. This past high school season, Coahulla Creek, Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield all had players who played with CFA.
"It's just fun playing with this group," Coahulla Creek rising junior Jamie Mendiola said. "All the players are talented and it helps you get better. We all go to different schools so, yeah, there's a little bit of trash talking. But it's been a lot of fun. It's crazy how far we've come."
Players for CFA's Under-16 National League team heading to Louisiana this weekend include Coahulla Creek's Mendiola, Dalton's Yahir Paez and Christian Zaragoza, and Northwest Whitfield's Fabian Navarro. As was the case with Mendiola, Navarro and Zaragoza each played crucial roles for their schools this past spring as sophomores, with Zaragoza starting every match at center back and Navarro leading Region 6-4A in both goals with 17 and assists with 19. Paez finished his freshman season at Dalton tied for third on the team in scoring with 14 goals.
"The Dalton team who just went undefeated as the No. 1-team in the country and won the state championship? They had 10 players who play with us," Daser said.
Daser said the club has a little more than 400 players at the moment and 30 teams with players ranging in age from 8 to 18. Players from beyond Whitfield County are now traveling to Dalton to play with CFA as well, and with the recent success both at the club and high school level Daser sees no end in sight for the club's success.
Beyond success on the field, Daser sees an opportunity for the local players to further themselves through the sport they love.
"I think in the past there were some amazing players here who could have been pro players, but they were lost in the local leagues here," Daser said. "Where now people are thinking differently. People are thinking about getting a scholarship and moving forward, beyond Dalton."
For young soccer players from Dalton, playing at an event like a U.S. Youth Soccer Regional means an opportunity to travel and compete against some of the best players in the country. It also means being able to play in front of scouts who may not be able to drop in to see the local games at Lakeshore Park and the Dalton recreational fields.
"This is a Dalton club, and I want the players to be proud of that," Daser said. "We've done a lot in just a few years. Hopefully we can continue to get the community excited about soccer."