Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

ODESSA, Texas -- Until recently, Darton golf coach Dale Dover was never at a loss for words when describing his team's rollercoaster season.

He called the Cavaliers "awful" and "horrible" a little over a month ago in a hotel room in Meridian, Miss. Two weeks later after the Cavs won the NJCAA Division I District IV Tournament, Dover said he was "proud" of his team.

Days after that as Darton celebrated its 10th Region XVII Championship in a row, he called his group "special."

But on Thursday afternoon as his golfers practiced for this week's NJCAA Division I National Tournament in Odessa, Texas, Dover finally ran out of words.

"I don't really know how to describe this team," Dover said before a long pause. "But I think this is the best team we have had since 2005 with this many freshmen."

This year's team, which comprises two sophomores and four freshmen, has taken its coach on a crazy, emotional ride this season, which will culminate with this week's national tournament. Darton is looking for its fourth national championship in six years, but this one would be the most improbable because of where the Cavs were just over a month ago.

Dover remembers a team meeting he conducted the night before the final round of the Lou Hart Invitational in Meridian, Miss. during the first week of April.

He didn't hold back his emotions in the hotel room during the meeting or when he was reliving it Thursday afternoon.

"I said to them that it was the worst a Darton team has played since I have been coaching," said Dover, who began helping out with the program in 2002.

"I told them that they didn't have to worry about nationals, because they weren't going to make the top 7 (at the District IV Tournament and qualify for nationals). I told them they were soft, and that they didn't have a whole lot of guts -- that sort of thing. I pretty much challenged them to see how they would react."

And it was a challenge that sophomores Taylor Welborn and Jared Wagenaar accepted.

"Yeah, we were mad," said Wagenaar, a South African who will be playing at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah next year. "But (Welborn and I) told the team when it comes down to it, you are doing it for yourself. You aren't doing it for (Dover) ... when you are playing, you are playing for yourself."

Walborn, Wagenaar and the rest of the Cavs solemnly left the hotel room and played the final round of the Lou Hart Invitational, finishing a disappointing seventh. As they were returning from Mississippi, Dover said he told his team to take some time off from the game of golf.

"I said, 'you are all evidently burned out and soft. I just want you to go home and think about this thing. I don't want you to pick up a golf club. Don't let me catch you at the golf course. We won't practice next week unless the whole team calls him. If I don't get a phone call from everybody, then we won't practice," Dover said.

A few days later, Dover's phone began to ring -- and one by one the Cavs told him they wanted to practice.

"Everybody's golf game changed after that," Wagenaar said.

The Cavs are no longer accused of being "soft" or "burned out" and are now four rounds away from being crowned national champions in their first year in Division I. Round one of the four-day tournament begins today at Odessa Country Club's Links Course.

And Dover, who has watched his team win District and Region titles since his challenge in the hotel room, said it's all about staying alive in the first round.

"What you don't want to do is lose it on the first day," Dover said. "I don't know much about the other teams in it, especially those out west. I think the national champion is going to come out of District IV."

Darton, which is ranked ninth in the nation on Golfstat.com and 13th in the nation in the NJCAA poll, will be among 25 teams competing for the national championship, including seven teams from District IV

. Along with Darton, District IV squads are No. 2 Meridian Community College, No. 4 Central Alabama Community College, No. 6 Brevard College, No. 16 Cape Fear Community College, No. 10 Wallace State and No. 19 Faulkner State.

Welborn and freshmen Shad Tuten, Austin McNeill, Joe Sakulpolphaisan and Spenser Ferrell will play in the tournament, while Wagenaar will be the alternate.

Welborn, Ferrell and Sakulpolphaisan enter today's round as Darton's top three golfers, but Dover said anybody in his lineup has the ability to shoot under par. Those skills, along with the team's work ethic, should make the surging Cavs one of the teams to beat this year.

"We expect to go to nationals," Dover said. "We outwork everybody. There is nobody in college golf in this country that works any harder than we work. None."