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No. 7 Darton golfers have eyes set on national title

Darton’s Joe Sakulpolphaisan, the top-ranked junior college golfer in the nation, has high expectations for himself and his team in the NJCAA national tournament, which starts today in Newton, Kan.

Darton’s Joe Sakulpolphaisan, the top-ranked junior college golfer in the nation, has high expectations for himself and his team in the NJCAA national tournament, which starts today in Newton, Kan.

NEWTON, Kan. — Shad Tuten can’t even begin to guess the number of putts he has taken on the practice green or the amount of time he has spent on the driving range.

The Darton sophomore and his fellow golfers have worked tirelessly this semester with just one thing on their mind: bringing home a national title.

The No. 7 Cavs will tee off at Sand Creek Station Golf Course in Newton, Kan., today in the opening round of the NJCAA national tournament, and Tuten is ready to bring home the school’s first Division I title.

“I have hit so many buckets of balls and I have made so many putts out here just practicing. It would be surreal (to win a national championship),” Tuten said. “This is what we have always worked for. I never thought I would have a chance to win a national title coming out of high school. And just to have a chance is a great feeling.”

It’s Darton’s 11th straight trip to nationals and second since moving to Division I. The Cavs finished fifth last season in Odessa, Texas — a respectable finish given the fact that they fell to 11th place after a frustrating opening round.

Joe Sakulpolphaisan, the top-ranked junior college golfer in the nation, tied for second last year and has his sights set on finishing on top this time.

“Everybody has been practicing really hard, and we want to win,” said Sakulpolphaisan, who recently committed to Mississippi St. “It would mean a lot because we play together for it. If we win this one, it would mean a lot for us because we have gone through this year together.”

Sakulpolphaisan and Tuten, who is the 16th-ranked golfer in the nation, have led the Cavs all season, and coach Bill Jones III expects that to continue this week.

“If Joe isn’t going to win it, he is going to compete for a Top 5 or Top 10,” Jones said. “I would like to see Shad get a run at Joe. I know Joe is going to show up, so if Shad is beating him going into the final round then we have two great scores. They need to be going at it instead of Joe beating him all the time.”

The final three Darton golfers competing this week will be sophomore Austin McNeill and freshmen Chase Jones and Neil Graham — three golfers who have been inconsistent this season but have the potential to put up low numbers. The trio has been jockeyed around the starting lineup with freshmen Nick Green and Robert Robertson, but now the final roster is set, giving the Cavs some stability.

“Now that we have the team set, the guys know their roles,” Jones said. “The 4 and 5 guys just need to not shoot over 75. If they shoot 68 or 69, that’s a bonus, but we can’t count 78 and 79 from those guys. If one of them shoots it, that’s fine. But if two of them do that in one round then we will have a really tough time winning.”

Darton will meet No. 1 Meridian Community College this week for the fifth time this year — and Meridian has bested the Cavs each time this season, including in the District IV tournament in late March.

The matchup has bloomed into a rivalry that Darton keeps falling on the wrong end of.

“We have played with them a number of times this year, and I don’t think that they are that good,” Tuten said. “I wouldn’t call it lucky, but they are beatable. Any of our guys have beat any of their guys on their team. You just have to do it that one tournament. We have played to our potential about twice this year. Our potential is great. We could play with some Division I teams with the guys we have.”

The Cavs have the talent, plus a work ethic that Tuten says is unrivaled around the nation. They run and do conditioning twice a week and had two-a-day practices last week in preparation for the four-round national tournament.

“If we keep up our work ethic, we will be unstoppable,” Tuten said. “We are probably the most physically fit team in Georgia and probably the country. I think if we are in contention the last day, we will be tough to beat because we are definitely physically fit.”