Darton pulls off magical sweep

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

JEKYLL ISLAND -- There was that fear, the kind that sneaks up on you.

"I was a little afraid of a letdown,'' said Darton golf coach Dale Dover, whose team soared to new heights earlier this week with a monumental upset to win the NJCAA Division I District Tournament, and then had to turn around and play for the Georgia title this weekend.

Sounds backward?

It was, and that's why Dover was concerned.

The Cavaliers had already qualified for the nationals in their first year in Division I, and they headed to Jekyll Island Thursday for the Region XVII Tournament knowing that letdown -- the one that comes all too often in sports after a big win -- was traveling with them.

They drove home Sunday smiling.

"A month ago I couldn't have dreamed of winning the region and the district titles, not the way we were playing,'' said Dover, whose team shot a 293 on Sunday to beat Coastal Georgia by five strokes to win the Region XVII title.

Simply put: Darton won it all -- and more -- this week.

"This week will go down as history as some kind of golf,'' said an elated Dover. "It's really special.''

Darton trailed by five strokes after the first round Friday, stormed back to take a one-stroke lead into Sunday's final round and then wrapped it up with a solid round to win by five strokes as Coastal Georgia shot a 297 in the final round.

That's 10 in a row for anyone who's counting, and they all count at Darton, where Dover has turned this program into a national power. He has won eight of those region titles, and was an assistant for the first two. Dover was named the Region XVII Coach of the Year on Sunday for the eighth consecutive year.

Those are all Georgia records, and taste even sweeter now, because Darton struggled at times this season and had its moments this week -- even on Sunday.

"It was a struggle,'' Dover said. "They had it (the pins) set up where it was tough on everyone. We did what we had to do to get the job done. It was a dad-gum struggle. I was grinding it out with them all day, keeping them from losing their composure.''

It was Darton's fifth golfer who made the difference.

Austin McNeill, who shot rounds of 81 and 77 to open the tournament, fired a 72 on Sunday. Shad Tuten and Joe Sakulpolphaisan, who led Darton for the first two days and made the all-tournament team, shot 72 and 73, but Taylor Welborn and Albany native Spenser Ferrell, shot 77 and 76. Ferrell had fired rounds of 67 and 69 in the district tournament earlier this week.

"My two big boys (Welborn and Ferrell) didn't have good days,'' Dover said. "Spencer was just buffaloed by the greens.''

That's why McNeill's 72 was so significant.

"I was really proud of Austin,'' Dover said. "We needed that really bad. We didn't count his scores the first two days, but we needed him today. He shot a 77 on Saturday, and if he had shot a 77 (Sunday), we would have been in a playoff with Coastal.''

McNeill, a freshman, knew what was at stake.

"Winning 10 (titles) in a row is a big deal,'' he said. "I hadn't played well all week, and I felt like I needed to step up (Sunday). It almost felt like a one-day tournament. It means a lot to win 10 in a row. Hopefully, next year we will make it 11.''

Dover couldn't have been happier.

"You've got to have five guys to win a championship,'' he said. "Somebody has to come through every day.''

McNeill did, and Darton kept the streak alive on Sunday with some gritty golf.

"We did enough to get the job done,'' Dover said. 'I'm proud of them because they hung in there.''

Oddly enough, Darton considered sitting out the Region XVII Tournament. The move to Division I was enough pressure for any program, and there were thoughts before the season began about how it would feel having to go from the Division I tournament on Tuesday to playing in the state on Thursday.

But Darton made the move, and then made a bit of history.

"We played six championship rounds of golf in seven days,'' Dover said. "We've never done that. It was all for something big, for the district and the state championship. The district decided that we were going to nationals, so this didn't affect the nationals.

"That was (big) when we won the district. We hadn't beaten any of those (teams) this year. I know it pained those coaches tremendously to see them hand me that trophy. That was an upset, no question about it. That was an upset.''

Maybe, but Darton is playing its best golf at the right time of the year, and there's nothing left but a run at a NJCAA Division I national title.

"We've been really blessed this year,'' Dover said. "We've

accomplished a tremendous amount at the end of the season. I'm so proud of these guys. The rest of it from here for me is just all gravy.''

The rest of it is the nationals in Odessa, Texas, next month, and Dover meant it when he said on Sunday that, "I want them to have a good time (at the nationals).''

Then he smiled, and added: "But it wouldn't hurt if we won it.''