ALBANY -- Shad Tuten stood on the River Pointe Golf Course driving range with a confident smile on his face before Friday afternoon's practice.
It was a smile that spoke of the excitement surrounding Darton's fall golf season, which kicks off today in the two-day Darton Fall Invitational at River Pointe GC.
"I'm just really, really excited about this year," said Tuten, one of three sophomores on Darton's squad. "I don't know what it is, I am just playing really good golf right now."
The tournament also ushers in the head coaching career of Bill Jones III, who succeeded Dale Dover on June 14 as coach of the Cavs. Jones has had recent success as an amateur golfer, finishing tied for seventh in this summer's Georgia Amateur Championship in Atlanta.
"It's been fun and interesting," Jones said. "Coach Dover is still around all the time, so it's almost like we have two figure heads right now. We work well together."
And Dover, who sat back in a golf cart and listened to his former player and assistant coach talk about the team, said he is more than happy with the direction the program is going.
"Bill is doing a great job with the new job," said Dover, who is now Director of Golf at Darton. "And I am becoming a really good assistant."
The Cavs will be led by three sophomores -- Tuten, Austin McNeill and Joe Sakulpolphaisan -- who are all playing some of the best golf of their lives right now. Tuten said much of his recent success has been because of his comfort with the coaches and the team.
"I am playing the best golf I have ever played, and I know Joe is, too," Tuten said. "(The sophomores) are all developing and getting mature about our golf game. I think that's the most important thing, because we have to be leaders for this team."
Sakulpolphaisan, a native of Thailand, was one of Darton's top two golfers last season and will start this year at No. 1.
"A little bit of everything in my game has gotten better," Sakulpolphaisan said.
Sakulpolphaisan finished second individually in last spring's NJCAA national tournament in Odessa, Texas. This fall in his preseason qualifying rounds, he has a below-par scoring average.
"Joe is just solid in general," Jones said. "He has been solid since he has been here. We have mostly worked on some short game issues and mental issues that he has had like trying to finish off rounds and getting a little more consistent on the greens. I believe we have helped him a lot from last year to this year."
McNeill isn't far behind Sakulpolphaisan in scoring average and will start the season as the No. 2 golfer, while Tuten will be the No. 3 golfer.
"I have high expectations for this team," McNeill said. "From seeing what guys are shooting in practice and what can be done, it is really exciting to see. Last year at this point in time, I don't think we were this far ahead."
The Cavs finished the spring season fifth in the nation, and Jones said his sophomores could have Darton back at that level again this year.
"As far as the core of sophomores and the talent in the freshmen class, I would be surprised if we weren't better than last year," Jones said.
Five freshmen round out the roster -- Chase Jones, Jonathan Howard, Neil Graham, Nick Green and Robert Robertson.
Robertson, a graduate of Greenbrier High School in Evans, will play as the No. 4 golfer today, while Green will be the No. 5 golfer.
"Just in the month we have had with the freshmen, they are starting to improve," said Jones, who didn't have the final two spots in his roster set until Friday. "It's always good that you don't know who is going to play, because it makes the practice rounds and qualifying rounds here at home seem like tournaments. So when they go off to a tournament, they will be prepared mentally."
Today's tournament, which includes Region XVII schools South Georgia College, Andrew College, Gordon College and Abraham-Baldwin Agricultural College, begins at 8:30 a.m. and is free and open to spectators.