ODESSA, Texas -- There's no denying that Darton College sophomore Taylor Welborn is the top player and unquestioned leader of the Cavaliers golf team.
But for Darton to win the NJCAA Division I National Championship this week for the first time since a string of three titles in a row was snapped back in 2007, the road to the promised land will undoubtedly go through the Cavs' four freshmen.
"They're a big reason why we're here," Welborn, a LaGrange native, said during practice last week at Stonebridge in preparation for today's first round, nodding in the direction of his four freshman teammates who make up this week's lineup in Odessa, Texas.
The four freshmen are Albany's Spenser Ferrell, Douglas' Austin McNeill, Elberton's Shad Tuten and Thailand native Chanat "Joe" Sakulpolphaisan. "They've all come a long way since the beginning of the season -- Shad, especially, because his game has improved more than anyone's -- and I couldn't be more proud to have them as my teammates as we try to go win it all."
Winning it all, Dover said, is exactly why these four signed with Darton out of high school a year ago, each of them bringing an impressive resume' that they hoped to add to by coming to Albany.
Or in the case of Ferrell, The Herald's 2010 co-Player of the Year from Byne Christian, staying right here at home.
"Growing up here (and watching closely at all the success the program has had), I really wanted to begin my career here. Because as far as playing on a junior college level, Darton is about as good as it gets," said Ferrell, who won two Georgia Christian Athletic Association individual state titles at Byne. "I'm glad I started here because everyone wants to be somewhere where you can compete for a national title year-in and year-out, and that's what Darton is all about."
That's the truth.
Darton, winner of the last 10 Region XVII titles, is making its 10th straight trip to the NJCAA nationals -- both feats are Georgia JUCO records -- while it's the Cavaliers' first as a member of Division I. At the NJCAA Division II level, they won national championships from 2005-07, finished second in 2008 and 2009, then finished fourth last season before making the jump up this past offseason.
So far, so good.
They won the Division I District Preview in November -- their first big test at the D-I level -- then repeated the feat last month when it counted most at the main District Tournament at Willow Point Golf Course in Alexandria City, Ala., where all they needed to do was finish in the Top 7 to advance to nationals. Instead, the Cavs put a lineup on the course of Welborn and four freshmen who ran away from the field on the final day.
At the time, Darton coach Dale Dover called the win "the fourth-biggest in my entire career at Darton behind the three national titles." And he sees no reason why the same combination of players can't deliver the school its fourth national title this week.
And if you think Dover is worried about putting such an inexperienced group on the course in Odessa, think again. After all, Dover's first national title in 2005 had the exact same makeup: four freshman and a sophomore.
"They're not really freshmen anymore. With an entire season under their belts, they're more like sophomores at this point," said Dover, who had a chance to put two sophomores and three freshman on the course this week when he filled out his lineup card before the tournament, opting instead to make sophomore Jared Wagenaar of South Africa the alternate, and giving the starting nod to McNeill. "Plus, I don't think any of these freshmen get nervous. If they get nervous, I sure as heck can't tell."
The reason for Dover's assessment is simple: Each freshman, at different times during the year, has demonstrated nerves of steel.
When Darton opened the season with a win at its home invitational, it was McNeill and Tuten who shined, finishing second and third, respectively, behind Welborn, while also making the All-Tournament Team. Then at the District Preview in November, it was Sakulpolphaisan who carried the Cavs by posting scores of 69, 70 and 72 to finish second overall, while Ferrell and Tuten each finished in the Top 10.
Then at the District Tournament last month, Welborn once again led the way, while all four freshmen put together the best rounds of their careers -- each shooting 74 or lower all three days -- to help Darton win by tying the lowest overall team score in school history with a single round of 276.
"We've just been getting more confident with every round we play," said Tuten, who Dover calls "his little Bulldog," and lauds him as the team's most-improved player. "Me, personally, I was a little nervous about being a part of the first class of freshman going to Division I, but we proved early on (by winning the District Preview) that we belonged,"
Sakulpolphaisan may have the most polished background of any of the freshmen, having played in several international pro tournaments as an amateur before making his way to the States in search of a college for his talents. Darton got lucky to snag him when Division I Kennesaw State recruited Sakulpolphaisan and planned to signed him, but ran out of scholarships.
Sakulpolphaisan, whose first name Chanat means "Joe" in his native Thailand, may be the quietest of the bunch, but he's arguably the straw that stirs the drink on the team.
"Joe brings more experience than any of these guys, and he's been a great addition to the team," Dover sa
id. "He may not say a whole lot, but he lets his play do the talking."
Sakulpolphaisan said he quickly became familiar with Darton's tradition upon the first time he met Dover.
"He show me the (national championship) trophies and tell me this is what we play for," Sakulpolphaisan said. "I told him I want to come help (win another one)."
Ferrell, meanwhile, has pushed through some adversity this year just to get back in the starting lineup -- he missed the entire first half of the spring season on academic suspension -- yet McNeill's road has arguably been tougher. He's been the odd man out at times this season in favor of Wagenaar, but worked hard and raised his game to new levels late in the year. As a result, he posted better qualifying scores in practice to become the No. 5 golfer on the team -- a move that appears to have been the best thing to happen to the Cavs, considering the one-sophomore, four-freshman-lineup helped Darton win district and state during a span of one week in April.
But taking a teammate's spot, however, has not been easy. Especially with this being Wagenaar's final year.
"It's tough, sure. But we're all friends, plus we're a team and we're here to help each other succeed, and coach is just doing what he thinks is best for the team," McNeill said. "At the end of the day, it's still a competition. Both me or Jared want to play, and I wish we could play all six."
But they can't, and with the first round of nationals set to tee off today, all that's left to do is let the chips fall where they may with the chosen five and hope they can ride Welborn's leadership and the four freshmen's red-hot clubs to a fourth national championship.
Welborn, for one, likes his team's chances no matter who's in the lineup.
"We know (regardless) if it's Jared or Austin at No. 5, we're gonna get a low score," he said. "We've been confident from top to bottom all year, and we still are."