Through the first nine minutes of Friday night’s homecoming contest for Dalton against winless Heritage, nothing seemed to go wrong for the Catamounts.
The rest of the way, it was a dogfight against a Generals’ squad that believed it could win.
Dalton led 21-0 with 3:43 remaining in the first quarter after Heritage had run just one play, but found itself in a one-possession game late in the fourth quarter. But junior cornerback Chris Childs came to the rescue with an interception, and Eder Mora’s 11-yard touchdown run sealed a 33-21 victory and assured Dalton no worse than the No. 3 seed in the Region 7-4A “play-in games” in two weeks.
“Chris is a guy that comes to practice every day and brings his lunch pail,” Dalton coach Matt Land said of Childs. “He is a guy who has played through some criticism this year and has turned into a real leader for our defense. It was a very timely interception and he was the perfect one to get it.”
Dalton (5-3, 3-1 Sub-region 7B-4A) can clinch the sub-region’s No. 2 seed next week with a win at Southeast Whitfield. Heritage (0-8, 0-4) had cut the Dalton lead to six points midway through the fourth quarter and put a scare into the Harmon Field crowd.
Early on, though, it certainly seemed as if Dalton wouldn’t need any heroics. Senior Brandon Dale took the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, weaving in and out of the Heritage kickoff team, and the Cats didn’t give Heritage a chance to return the favor. Dalton kicker Pepe Gardea looked as if he was delivering a penalty kick on the soccer field, drilling a front-line Heritage player with a kick that bounced off his back and wound up in the arms of Dalton’s Marvin Hill.
The Cats followed that turn with a 10-play, 49-yard drive that was a little bit of everything and ended with quarterback Cole Calfee’s 1-yard sneak. Heritage finally got the ball with more than half of the first quarter gone, but didn’t keep it long as Mora picked off quarterback Jacob Carter’s pass on the first play.
Dalton capitalized and took a three-touchdown lead three plays later when Kelvis Rhodes took a pitch and scored from 30 yards. Heritage’s next play was a fumble that Childs fell on, and Heritage didn’t get on track until Dalton tossed an interception on a fake field goal try.
“It was a tale of two halves for us. That first quarter was a killer,” Heritage coach Tim James said. “Coach Land and his kids did a good job. They played well enough to stay in the game, but I am so proud of my kids. Athletically, they aren’t the best bunch of kids that I have ever had, but I am proud to be their coach.”
Taking over at the 31 after the interception, the Generals went 69 yards in 14 plays, methodically pounding the ball down the field with a mix of cross-bucks and off-tackle plays out of the spread. Then Carter hit Seth Hickman on a 9-yard scoring pass.
Dalton added another touchdown before the half on a Hail Mary pass from Calfee to Dale in the back of the end zone and led 27-7.
That is when things got interesting.
Caleb Dietz scored on a 10-yard run on Heritage’s opening drive of the third quarter. The Generals then drove 89 yards in 13 plays with Carter diving into the end zone from the 1 yard line to pull his team to within a score, 27-21.
Heritage responded with a stop to get the ball back with a chance to take the lead, but the Dalton defense finally stopped the cross-buck and Childs came up with the pick.
He was thinking one thing — give the ball back to the offense.
“We were just trying to execute on defense and get the ball back,” Childs said. “We needed to do whatever we could to get the ball away. We didn’t show up like we usually do, and we have to get back to work next week. We aren’t satisfied with this win.”
The Dalton offense got on track as well after the pick, with Rhodes breaking off a 39-yard run and Mora delivering the final blow.
“A win is a win, but this is one of the reasons that I bleed red and love Dalton,” Land said. “If you sit in our locker room, that was like a losing game.
“Those young men know what happened on that field and they weren’t happy with themselves and that is why I am proud of them. Am I proud of the way they played? No. I am proud of the fact that they recognize that was not our best performance and was not our best effort. I know they will come in Monday ready to work harder than they did last Monday.”
Rhodes finished with 162 yards on 19 carries, while Dale had 76 yards receiving.