Darton men's soccer coach Bart Sasnett, center, enters his fifth year as the leader of the program he's quickly turned into a national powerhouse. Darton, which is ranked No. 6 coming out of preseason, opens its 2011 season today in Pensacola. Fla., against No. 9-ranked San Jacinto (Texas).
ALBANY -- Bart Sasnett feels the pressure.
He felt it when the Darton men's soccer team was ranked No. 6 in the preseason NJCAA Coaches Poll. And he feels it now as the Cavaliers prepare for today's season opener against No. 9 San Jacinto (Texas) Community College.
Now, after all the preseason hype following last year's sixth-place finish at nationals, Sasnett gets to find out exactly what his team is made of.
"I wanted to find out who we were early," said Sasnett, who is beginning his fifth season as head coach of the Cavs.
And it doesn't get much easier after today's game, which is being played at the University of West Florida. Darton is on the road for its first four contests, which include matchups against Region XVII rivals South Georgia and 14th-ranked Georgia Perimeter.
"The schedule is all on me. I made it, so we will see how it goes," Sasnett said. "It may be a determinant, but what doesn't kill us makes us stronger."
Sasnett has never had a schedule this tough to start a season and he has never had a team this young and inexperienced with only three returning starters. But that doesn't stop sophomore leader Diego Ramos of Deerfield Beach, Fla., from believing that this year's team has the makings of something special.
"Last season is over now, and we have a new season and new guys," said Ramos, who had seven goals and 13 assists last season. "Last year's team was more experienced and bigger sized, but I think our team now has more technique and is better all around."
Better than last year's sixth place performance at nationals, which was the best finish in the history of the Darton program? It won't be easy, but Sasnett said there is no one better to lead the Cavs to that level than Ramos, who was named All-Region and All-South as a freshman and was, in Sasnett's opinion, the best player in last year's national tournament.
"Diego Ramos is without a doubt the heart and soul of our team," Sasnett said. "Everything runs through him. He is one of the captains, and he has been instrumental in keeping this team focused, disciplined, positive and organized. I can't say enough good things about that kid."
And neither could freshman goalkeeper and Westover graduate Cory Walter, who is one of 25 freshmen on a roster that lost eight starters from last season.
"They are doing a good job (of setting an example for the freshmen)," said Walter, who will be the backup goalkeeper behind freshman Carlos Catano in tonight's game. "They are nice, cool guys."
Nice, cool and talented, too. Darton's three returning starters -- Ramos, Javier Anor and Guilherme Frota -- are all midfielders and provide the youthful Cavs a perfect foundation for its possession-style of play.
"We are young in the back and young in the goal, but our midfield hasn't missed a beat," Sasnett said. "We are as good as we were last year in the midfield.
"We are a possession-oriented team. We keep possession and wait, and use possession as our No. 1 line of defense. We feel like the more we have it, the higher percentage we have of winning."
The freshmen are starting to buy into that philosophy and understanding their roles on a team where some of them will start, including forwards Jowayne Laidley from Orlando, Fla., and Andrew Palumbo from Fort Myers, Fla.
None of Westover's four freshmen will start, including three-time Herald Player of the Year Danny Brown, who is still recovering from mono but should be a key offensive threat later in the season. Other Westover grads suiting up for the Cavs along with Brown and Walter are midfielders Bridger Ferrell and Michael Barron.
And Walter said there is something special about putting on a Darton uniform.
"Darton has a good soccer program," Walter said. "All of these guys are really good, and it feels really good to play with them. I am starting to feel like I am one of them."
Darton's lone returning defender is sophomore Travis Rovillo, who wasn't a full-time starter as a freshman but got plenty of experience. Rovillo said he has told the freshmen that playing college soccer is a lot different than high school.
"You are going to get knocked around a lot more," Rovillo said. "People are going to take cheap shots at you, and you just can't lose your temper. Because you can't get away with it like you could in high school."
All of the pressure, preseason hype and preparation culminates tonight, when the Cavs step on the field against a San Jacinto team that has placed in the top four in the nation four times in the last decade.
"They are one of those Top 10 programs that are there every year. It's not a fluke. They are good and consistent," Sasnett said. "It's going to be a good gauge of where we are when we start region play next week. We are going to play four games on the road in eight days, so there is a lot of pressure."
But for Sasnett and the Cavs, pressure just comes along with the territory these days.