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Class 6A soccer playoffs: Gainesville stuns Dalton in OT to reach state championship game
Cristian Rodriguez scores pair of OT goals as top-ranked Catamounts fall
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Gainesville's Armando Hernandez (8) moves the ball downfield Tuesday during the boys Class 6A state semifinals against Dalton at Bobby Gruhn Field at City Park. - photo by Erin O. Smith

As Elie Viviant stood near midfield Tuesday night at City Park Stadium, surrounded by a celebratory swarm of players and fans, the Gainesville boys soccer coach pointed to his shirt.

Pictured there was the Red Elephants’ logo underneath two stars, which represented the program’s number of state championships. Even while encircled by jubilation, the even-keeled coach offered a straightforward statement.

“I want to add another star to this shirt,” Viviant said with a grin.

Gainesville is just one win away from making his wish a reality.

Cristian Rodriguez scored a pair of overtime goals and recorded an assist as the Red Elephants stunned top-ranked Dalton 3-1 in the Class 6A semifinals Tuesday night. After the Catamounts (20-2) notched an equalizer late in the second half, Viviant’s squad regrouped to make its first state championship appearance since 2012.

“Someone had to step up and make a play, and I was just happy to be the one to do it,” Rodriguez said. “I was out for the final 10 minutes of the (second) half, I think because coach just wanted to save my legs for overtime. But I got in and just made something happen.”

Now Gainesville (19-2) has a chance to complete its quest for a state title when it faces fellow No. 1 seed Chattahoochee at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mercer University’s Five Star Stadium in Macon.

The Cougars defeated second-seeded Allatoona 5-1 on Tuesday night to advance to the championship game.

The Red Elephants enter that showdown having most recently knocked off a top seed, possibly the best of the bunch. Dalton cruised to three consecutive state titles from 2013-2015, and Tuesday night was the first time in four years it lost a game that didn’t go to penalty kicks.

“We beat probably the best team in the state tonight,” Viviant said.

Gainesville certainly had the edge in the first half, holding an offense that averaged more than five goals per game and had scored 18 in the playoffs to only seven shots. The Catamounts appeared disjointed in the midfield and the attack, which directly led to the Red Elephants’ first goal.

Dalton in the 20th minute performed a throw-in that was intercepted and eventually fell to Rodriguez, who headed it toward the net. He placed it in a perfect spot for teammate Pedro Santos, who raced behind his defender and buried the ball in the left-hand pocket of the goal past the Catamounts’ charging goalie.

But Dalton posed much more of an offensive threat in the second half even though Gainesville often positioned five or six defenders near the net.

The Catamounts earned four penalty kicks in a span of about two minutes, with the final one proving costly for the Red Elephants. Goalkeeper Augustin Garcia (12 saves) stopped three quick shots in a crowded box before Tony Saldana skipped it past his outstretched hands to tie the game with 18 minutes to play.

The drama-filled final minutes passed without a goal, sending the game to a pair of five-minute overtime periods.

Rodriguez rose to the occasion in the 82nd minute, booting a free kick just below the crossbar for a goal that sent City Park Stadium into a frenzy. He executed nearly identical goals on free kicks from similar distances in Gainesville’s first-round and quarterfinal matchups.

“That’s just my spot,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve had some momentum there, and I wanted to keep it going.”

Viviant said he felt relieved after that score because he felt confident his team, which had surrendered only 16 goals all season, could hang on to a one-point lead for the remainder of the game.

Rodriguez made sure his teammates didn’t have to.

One minute later after his first goal, teammate Brandon Reyna fired an immaculate free kick from about 40 yards out that dropped right into the penalty box. Rodriguez snuck behind Dalton’s back line and struck a header that caught the goalkeeper flat-footed and provided the dagger for Gainesville.

Chants of “Gainesville” began filling the warm night sky, and students stormed the field as the final buzzer sounded.

“We may have gotten a bit lucky, and their goalie may have been a bit out of position on that first (overtime) goal, but sometimes the ball just bounces the right way,” Viviant said. “We may not have necessarily deserved to win, but we won anyway.”

The Red Elephants managed it without the services of starter Jorge Vasquez, who missed the game after receiving a red card in the team’s 3-1 win against Centennial in the quarterfinals last Saturday. Viviant praised Jovanei Santana for his stepping up in Vasquez’s place.

Gainesville has now won 12 games in a row, but a 13th victory would mean more than all the rest combined.

It would put another star on the Red Elephants shirts, too.

“It feels so great,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been underdogs the whole season just like we were tonight, and we’ve embraced that. People doubted us all season, but here we are.”

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