KENNESAW -- Fabian Abarca broke free and bore down on the Dalton goal, and for seconds it appeared as though destiny was wearing sky blue and white.
Samuel Fraire stood tall, however -- the Catamounts goalkeeper denying the Knights striker -- and moments later Johnson was left wondering what might have been.
After narrowly missing a chance to take the lead in the Class AAAA boys soccer championship, Johnson watched Dalton respond with the first goal en route to a 2-0 victory that saw the Catamounts retain the state title and deny the Knights their first ever championship shot on Saturday at Kennesaw State's Fifth Third Bank Field.
"We had our chances; if we finished that one, if we finished the header we had earlier, we're talking about a different game," Johnson coach Brian Shirley said. "We just didn't execute like we needed to."
After watching Fraire come up huge with saves against Abarca and, just five minutes into the game, Barut Perez, Dalton found its own execution in front of goal. Justen Macias powered a header past Johnson goalkeeper Ivan Salcido -- who also enjoyed a stellar contest -- with just over three minutes left in the first half.
The Catamounts (22-0-1) doubled their advantage just after the interval when Javier Rodriguez struck to make it 2-0, helping Dalton to extend its unbeaten streak to 45 straight contests.
"That was huge, scoring right before the half; it was even bigger not to give up a goal there early," Catamounts coach Matt Cheaves said. "That was the best team we've played in the playoffs, and I think we finally wore them down with our substituting, but we had to earn that win."
The defending champions so nearly found themselves staring at a deficit just minutes after kickoff, as Perez ran on to a chipped cross from Luis Hernandez and drove his header toward the goalmouth -- only to watch Fraire scramble the shot away with 35 minutes left in the half.
The near miss acted as a sort of a wake-up call for the Catamounts, and Dalton began to find its feet as Javier Rodriguez and Isai Hernandez each tested Salcido, the Knights keeper proving equal to the shots, saving both -- while another rolled inches wide.
Johnson's midfield and attack found tough going against a Dalton midfield featuring Eder Mora and Jose Gardea, the duo choking off the Knights' momentum and setting their own team going with incisive passing.
"It seemed like they were first to every 50-50 ball there early," Shirley said. "They didn't let us build anything."
Johnson (21-2) was also stifled by injury to forward and captain Luis Deltoro, the senior leaving the game early not to return.
"That hurt, you lose your captain and cog like that..." Shirley said. "It made it even tougher."
Yet Abarca so nearly put the Knights in front, running on to a through pass on a lightning-quick counter-attack before surging toward goal. But the sophomore's shot was blocked by Fraire, and the let-off proved pivotal.
Responding almost immediately, Dalton made their attacking pressure pay off with 3:48 left in the first half, Macias running on to a re-directed cross from Rodriguez to head home for a 1-0 lead.
"That goal hurt, and it was after a mis-hit clearance, and that really kind of got our emotion down at the half," Shirley said. "But we got back up and came out and tried to get back in the game."
The Knights, led by Israel Avila in midfield, fought, but the Catamounts proved too much and doubled their lead just eight minutes into the restart.
This time Rodriguez poached a second strike when Churrui Huitanda beat Salcido to a chipped pass and nodded the ball goalward -- Rodriguez running in to slam the ball into an open net and ensure a 2-0 advantage for Dalton with 32:12 to play.
With the game getting away, Johnson responded, taking more possession while looking for more routes through to the Catamounts goal.
But the Dalton midfield and defense, led by Mora and Gardea managed to keep Johnson at bay, shackling Abarca and Perez, and forcing the Knights into blind alleys or hopeful long balls, as time drained away.
Despite the setback, Shirley feels there were plenty of lessons learned for a young Johnson squad that featured five seniors amongst its starting 11.
"The bar is set there now, and we've got a good middle school and feeder program, so hopefully we can come in here next year and build on this," Shirley said.
For his 11 seniors, Shirley offered nothing but pride and respect.
"The whole school is proud of these guys; they did something that's never been done before, and they'll realize what an incredible season this was," Shirley said. "They worked their tails off, and they're just a great group of guys."