No. 1 Darton men stunned in national semifinals

Darton’s Luis Zuluaga shows his disappointment as he and his teammates walk off the field Friday after falling in the national semis. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Darton’s Luis Zuluaga shows his disappointment as he and his teammates walk off the field Friday after falling in the national semis. (joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

ALBANY — Andrew Palumbo stood near midfield, unable to say goodbye.

After being stunned by Tyler (Texas) Junior College, 4-1, in Friday’s NJCAA national semifinal game, members of the No. 1 seed Darton State College men’s soccer team made their way to the sideline — but not Palumbo, not the Cavs’ captain and leading scorer who left it all on the field this season.

He wanted to leave a little more.

“I just wanted to look at the field one more time,” said Palumbo, one of 10 sophomores on Darton’s roster. “I wanted to take it all in and remember this loss and channel it to work hard for next season, wherever I end up.”

The Cavs (19-1) ended up in the same place they did last season — in a tie for third place in the nation. But after the program’s first undefeated regular season and a No. 1 national ranking for almost the entire fall, the Cavs wanted more this time.

“This takes away (from the undefeated season). I thought this team was good enough to be in the national final,” Darton coach Bart Sasnett said. “This one hurts way worse, because it was at home. We had all these fans here. This one hurts worse than all of them.”

Tyler (20-2-1) will play in today’s national title game against Louisburg College (N.C.), which defeated Monroe Community College (N.Y.) in Friday’s second semifinal. It’s a championship that the Cavs had every intention of playing for.

“Even though we had a great season, we really wanted this,” Darton sophomore midfielder Luis Zuluaga said. “We really wanted a national championship, and we knew we had the team to do it. We just didn’t step up, and we made mistakes that we didn’t make all season.”

The Apaches struck early against Darton with a Nathan Trout goal in the sixth minute. Trout, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound defender, outjumped everybody on a corner kick from Oneil Fisher and scored on a header to give the Cavs their first deficit in the national tournament.

Tyler, which Darton beat earlier in the season, 2-1, found the back of the net again 15 minutes later when Darton goalkeeper Carlos Catano attempted to clear the ball but kicked it straight at Tyler midfielder Joseph Pratt, who deflected it into an open goal.

It was a play that epitomized an entire first half during which the Cavs had trouble making even routine plays on the defensive side.

“We gave them those goals,” Sasnett said. “All of those goals were our mistakes. They didn’t do anything special. We just made defensive errors. The defense had a bad night.”

Palumbo, a forward who finished the season with a team-high 11 goals after scoring two in Wednesday’s victory against Western Texas, said his team played a “horrible first half.”

“We just allowed sloppy goals,” he said. “We hadn’t done that all year. If we wouldn’t have just conceded those, maybe it would have been different. But at the end of the day, we lost — and that’s what it is.”

The Cavs had several opportunities late in the first half to get one of those goals back but couldn’t find the back of the net and went into halftime trailing, 2-0.

Seven minutes into the second half, Tyler struck again on an Alan Rovira goal after a long cross from Fernando Castellanos.

The Cavs finally got on the scoreboard with 26:34 left in the game when sophomore Troy Tucker sent a free kick into the lower corner of the net to bring Darton to within two goals. One minute later, Darton freshman Alejandro Garcia nearly scored on a header from a perfect cross from Palumbo, but Tyler goalkeeper Chris McGaughey guessed right and prevented the Cavs from a second goal.

Darton had chance after chance in the closing minutes, but instead the Cavs sailed shots just over the net and didn’t get bounces on corner kicks. Tyler put the final exclamation point on its victory with a goal nearly identical to its first when Trout knocked in a header on a Fisher corner kick late in the second half.

“We couldn’t get it back in the second half, but we tried our best,” Palumbo said. “It was a great season, and I’ve had a great two years here. I’m proud to be a Cavalier. I’m just sad it had to end like this.”

Sasnett said Palumbo was part of a sophomore class that won’t be forgotten.

“This was the best sophomore class we have ever had,” said Sasnett, who will lose seven sophomore starters — Palumbo, Catano, Zuluaga, Tucker, forward Jowayne Laidley, defender Soren Yuhaschek and defender Jaylon Bather. “It was a phenomenal group, on and off the field, with a lot of character. We just have to start recruiting and find some more like that.”