After finishing sixth a year ago, the No. 1-ranked Darton men’s soccer team returns to the NJCAA Division I National Championship tournament today in Phoenix, looking for the program’s first national title in school history. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

After finishing sixth a year ago, the No. 1-ranked Darton men’s soccer team returns to the NJCAA Division I National Championship tournament today in Phoenix, looking for the program’s first national title in school history. (john.millikan@albanyherald.com)

PHOENIX -- Before practice on Monday, Troy Tucker was imagining the feeling of flying back to Georgia as a national champion.

The freshman from Bermuda and the rest of his Darton teammates are now three wins away from doing just that.

"This is a chance to make history. A chance to give a national championship to Darton College," Tucker said. "It would be amazing. I have never won a big game in my life."

Want To Watch?

WHO: No. 1 Darton vs. No. 8 Pima CC.

WHAT: NJCAA Division I National Championship tournament.

WHEN: 8:30 p.m. today.

WHERE: Phoenix.

ONLINE: cavs.darton.edu

The top-ranked Darton men's soccer team (18-1) enters the NJCAA National Championship Tournament seeded No. 1 and opens up its title bid at 8:30 p.m. today in Phoenix against eighth-seeded Pima Community College (Ariz.), which is ranked 11th in the nation.

But when the Cavs step onto the field tonight against the Aztecs, two of the Cavs' best players will be on the sidelines. Sophomore stars Diego Ramos, who Cavs coach Bart Sasnett called the best player in last year's national tournament, and Javier Anor both have injured knees and are all but ruled out for the four-day tournament.

"Not having them is huge," Sasnett said. "But we have gotten to the point where we aren't concentrating on what we don't have. We are concentrating on what we do have. You can't look back and wonder what could have been. There are a lot of good players here."

Darton is stocked full of talented players from all over the globe, but Ramos -- the seventh-leading scorer in the nation with 17 goals and 30 assists -- might be the best to ever step on the Cavs' practice field. Anor has also been key to Darton's success this season, netting six goals and four assists.

The Cavs played their last two games without Ramos and sophomore forward Carlos Trombino Filho, who was also injured but will be back for the national tournament, so they know a little bit about filling those big shoes.

"When times get hard, we know what to do," Tucker said. "Other players need to step up to the plate and do what they have to do."

Tucker is one of those players who has stepped up in the last two games. In the region championship against nemesis Georgia Perimeter, Tucker had the game-winning goal in double overtime to punch the Cavs' ticket to nationals.

Sophomore midfielder Guilherme Frota is another who will need to step up today in the absence of two players who create a lot of offense.

"We know our goal, and our goal is to win all of the games," Frota said. "We had two weeks to prepare and we have been practicing hard. But if we lose that first game we are done."

The Cavs wouldn't technically be done, but they would have no shot at a national title and could only finish as high as fifth. Last year, the Cavs lost their opening-round game to Barton (N.C.) and finished sixth after losing the consolation championship to Lincoln (Ill.).

This year, the Cavs aren't even thinking about the consolation bracket.

"It would be a huge disappointment, and I would not be happy without winning a national championship," Sasnett said. "I have seen this team do too much and persevere through too much. They are good enough, and they deserve it."

Pima brings an 18-6-1 record into the opening-round game, and the Aztecs have won nine in a row -- so Sasnett knows not to take them lightly.

"At this stage, all the teams are good," said Sasnett, whose Cavs had never been seeded better than fifth in the national championship before this year. "You can't go off records. These teams have persevered through extremely adverse situations and have played against good competition. They will be as good as anybody we have seen, and maybe even better."

But the Cavs have depth, which is why they have been able to survive these late-season injuries. And with nearly two weeks to rest since their District title against Spartanburg (S.C.) Methodist, the healthy Cavs have fresh legs and are ready to go make history.

"After we played Spartanburg Methodist, we had six guys out, and now we just have two out," Sasnett said. "We took a lot of hits up at Spartanburg, and now we are rolling. Everybody is healthy, and everybody is ready. We are loose and conducting ourselves like professionals. I think we are ready to go."

A Darton win tonight advances the Cavs to Friday night's semifinal game between the winner of tonight's Iowa Western/Monroe (N.Y.) matchup. The favorite to come out of the other side of the bracket and a possible title-game opponent for the Cavs is No. 2 seeded Tyler, which plays Southern Maryland in the opening round.