Rury Alvarez hears the friendly conversation and feels the pat on the back. He notices how the faces of Dalton Academy’s students light up when one of his football players walks down a hallway.
There has been much talk of making history if the Cougars could win a GHSA Class A state championship in public schools in their first year of existence.
To be honest — and Alvarez is unabashedly so — the former Dalton State College player doesn’t need to be told how special his team is. The past few months have seen to that for the Dalton Academy coach and the special part has little to do with football.
Sure, after Friday’s 2-1 home win over Georgia Military College Prep, secured by Christian Cuna’s goal 11 minutes from time, the Cougars will head into the finals at Mercer University in Macon with a shot on Tuesday night with a 17: 2 record move to finals Going from zero to champions in a couple of weeks. Win or lose, however, Alvarez views this game and potential title as a small part of the team’s history.
“No matter what happens tonight, we’ve already won and done things that nobody thought possible,” Alvarez said ahead of Friday’s semifinals.
By wins, he means in life, and Alvarez knows a little of that, having grown up in a low-income family in Stone Mountain. He quickly fell in love with football – “I even preferred football to girls. They knew football was my first love and nobody could compare to it,” he said – and played at a high level.
Alvarez received a full scholarship to Central Florida but soon ended up at Georgia Perimeter College, where he eventually had to drop out due to poor grades. Two years later and after surviving on odd jobs, his Georgia Perimeter coach Mark Segura convinced him to give football and school a try again and helped him get into Dalton State.
“It was incredible,” said Alvarez. “I got there with a garbage bag full of clothes and I remember saying, ‘God, take the wheel.’ I didn’t have a scholarship, was living on a $500 credit card and was working odd jobs to keep it alive but I eventually managed to graduate and I even met the love of my life there and we have a baby now on the way.”
Dalton Academy vs. GMC Prep Boys Soccer on April 29, 2022
Meeting his players after accepting the job as the program’s first coach, Alvarez quickly felt a connection.
“Some of the things my players went through were way worse than anything I went through,” he said, pausing to control his emotions. “I’ve had a few come across the border and luckily they’re getting it right and working with immigration to make it legal.
“I had a player this week who thought he was going to be deported and he was scared to death. I hear all these stories and it breaks my heart, things like the kids’ parents hiding in bushes afraid of getting caught or one of my players just lost his aunt trying to cross the desert last week to traverse.
“These guys are warriors. They’ve been through hell and back and they’re still here. You don’t need to wonder why they play so hard for each other. We have several players who live alone and work 40 hours a week “You take a cab home from training, change and go to work. You go home, get some sleep and start all over again the next day.”
When asked when he started thinking his team could be something special, Alvarez laughed.
“No way,” he said. “I have never seen this team reach this level. We have several children who were circumcised at Dalton High, which is an amazing program, and several others who didn’t even look at it. Funnily enough, we say this – and it is what it is – we are the rejected, and I include myself in that.
“That’s one reason we try to play every single game like it’s a league game and that started from day one. Nothing in life is given to you. You have to work for everything, especially these kids. I tell them to think of all the sacrifices your parents made, and if they pay seven bucks to see you play, you better be ready to die on the field for them.”
On the pitch, the Pumas are balanced, with 78 goals scored and just 16 against them this season. Adrian Granados leads the team with 19 goals, followed by Fernando Garcia with 11 and Jesus Arellano and Milver Carrillo with eight each.
Alvarez gives a lot of credit to his co-captains, senior Yehia Hussein and sophomore Andy Reynoso, for keeping the team together and always motivating their fellow Pumas. Hussein will play at Dalton State next year, the first of many Dalton Academy players Alvarez hopes will get a college education through football.
“Those two are my motivators and they never stop working,” Alvarez said, emotion showing in his voice again. “If my son has at least 50% of the character and positivity, hunger, discipline and respect that these two have, I will be a happy man. I would die for these two boys.
“People say it all the time, but we’re seriously family. As for our success, the secret ingredient is love.”
In other GHSA boys’ football semi-finals involving area teams on Friday:
Dalton 5, River Ridge 1: Zeke Ortiz scored twice to lead the Catamounts (18-1-3) into next Friday’s championship game in Macon. Fabian Rodriguez scored the first goal of the game after 15 minutes, Pablo Castillo made it 2-0 at half-time. After River Ridge cut the lead to one early in the second half, Ortiz scored his first goal and Yahir Perez added safety before Ortiz ended the game with his second.
Southeast Whitfield 3, Columbus 1: The Raiders (18-2-3) gave hosts Columbus their first loss in 20 games with a strong defensive performance and a Jonathan Hernandez hat-trick. He scored the only goal in the first half and added another 11 minutes in the second half before ending his second straight multigoal game with just over 18 minutes to play. Southeast and rival Northwest Whitfield meet for the title in Macon next Thursday.
5 Northwest Whitfield, 1 East Hall (OT): The Bruins (15-5-1) broke out in overtime to score four goals to set up a final for Whitfield County State when Nicolas Cuna scored twice in OT’s second period. Eliseo Padilla scored the first goal of the game from a penalty before East Hall, who went down after a one-man red card, leveled with just under seven minutes to go. Mathew Molina broke the tie in the first OT period with a goal from a corner, while Cuna and Huriel Guzman provided safety in the second period.
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ youngsports22.