Darton State College's men soccer team is the top seed and prepared for the national tournament, which is being played at Darton. (Nov. 12, 2012)
ALBANY — A perfect regular season. A No. 1 national ranking. The top seed in the NJCAA national tournament.
Bart Sasnett would give it all away for a national championship.
“A title would mean everything,” Sasnett said. “It’s what you strive for. It’s what I was hired to do, and why we are in this. It’s why we even have a program here.”
That’s how important this week is for the Darton men’s soccer team, which hosts nationals and opens the tournament at 7:30 p.m. today against Western Wyoming Community College.
And the Cavs (17-0) have just one thing on their minds.
“Winning a national championship would be a dream come true,” Darton sophomore Jaylon Bather said. “It would be like winning the (prestigious UEFA) Champions League title. That’s how special it would be.”
The Cavs have already put together a season that will be talked about for years around the Darton campus, one that started back on Aug. 17 with a remarkable preseason victory against Georgia Southern — the first win in program history against a Division I school.
And Darton never slowed down.
The Cavs, who finished tied for third in last year’s national tournament, rattled off 15 straight regular season victories and pair of one-goal wins in the Region XVII tournament.
They’ve got all the momentum in the world entering today’s game against a Western Wyoming team that is just 14-9 overall and unranked in the national poll.
The 12 teams in the national tournament are divided into four pools, and the winner of each pool will play in Friday’s semifinals.
No. 1 seed Darton, No. 8 Western Texas and No. 12 Western Wyoming make up Pool A, and Sasnett isn’t taking either of his opponents lightly.
“These are two very good teams,” Sasnett said. “Western Wyoming appears to be peaking at the right moment, and Western Texas is just flat out good.”
The Cavs wrap up pool play at noon Wednesday against Western Texas, which is 10-2, ranked 11th in the country and is coming off a Region V championship.
“I feel like they will be gunning for us,” Bather said. “We are going to have to really work hard, because every team will be coming at us hard.”
Sasnett said he noticed teams playing different against Darton in the regular season, too.
“I’ve watched games between teams from our region, and they just weren’t as intense as when they played us,” Sasnett said. “Everybody gets up when they play Darton College.”
Sasnett expects his fans to get up for this week’s tournament as well.
“We get to play in front of our fans and our crowd, and they are amazing,” Sasnett said. “It’s a huge advantage. I think the atmosphere is going to be intense. I think we are going to have a lot of fans here. Every game is going to be tough and hard, and they can help push us through. We will have that 12th man on the sideline.”
Alejandro Garcia, a freshman from Coral Springs, Fla., leads the Cavs with 10 goals, while Jowayne Laidley and Andrew Palumbo each have nine. Troy Tucker has a team-high 10 assists, while Carlos Cantano has allowed just seven goals in 13 games.
Garcia’s biggest goal came in the Region XVII semifinal game against Wallace State (Ala.) when he broke a scoreless tie in the final minutes, sending Darton into the championship against South Georgia.
Garcia, who wasn’t on the team last season, said the tournament experience of the sophomores who made a run at a national title in 2011 has helped the freshmen.
“All of that happens at practice. We all play and get touches. Thier experience shows in practice, and we all learn from it,” Garcia said. “I feel like we have a huge chance this week, but we have to prove ourselves.”