Darton star Jowayne Laidley, center, celebrates with teammates Andrew Palumbo, left, and Jahmel Swan, right, after scoring a goal earlier this season against South Georgia College. Laidley and the Cavs are 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. (David Mann/Darton State College)
ALBANY — Jowayne Laidley grew up in Kingsland, Jamaica, hearing all about his father’s success as a professional soccer player.
He relished the stories, idolizing the hand-me-down memories and dreaming of one day making his own.
Now the Darton sophomore jumps at every chance to make a phone call back to his home country and tell his dad about his storybook season unfolding in Southwest Georgia.
“My dad says he is seeing everything on the news, and he tells me how proud he is of me,” Laidley said. “I wanna make my dad proud, but right now it’s all about what we are doing.”
Darton is unbeaten after 11 games and has been the No. 1-ranked junior college team in the nation the entire season. The Cavs have also outscored their opponents, 36-8, and are the hands-down favorites to win the NJCAA National Championship tournament, which will be played in Albany for the first time in school history.
“It’s a testament to all of the hard work the guys have put in and all of the training sessions during camp,” said Bart Sasnett, who is in his sixth year as head coach of the Cavs.
Darton set school records in 2011 for wins in a season (19), consecutive wins (16) and was ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into the national tournament, where the Cavs tied Tyler in the third-place game.
Now this Darton group wants something more.
They’re ready to take that next step — and Laidley is ready to call his dad with a new story to pass down through the generations.
“We were supposed to win nationals last year, so it’s always been a mindset that we should win it now,” Laidley said. “Right now, I’m enjoying being at the top, but we still know there is a lot of work left to do.”
Darton has four regular-season games left, including its final two home games of the regular season Saturday and Monday against Region XVII opponents Georgia Perimeter and Georgia Military College, respectively.
The Cavs are 6-0 in the region and two games — plus a tiebreaker — ahead of second-place South Georgia College.
Rewind almost two months — before the 11-game winning streak and prior to the No. 1 ranking — and life on the Darton soccer team wasn’t so easy.
“Things didn’t click as well as I would have liked them to early on,” Sasnett said.
Laidley, the team’s leading scorer with eight goals, remembers the early moments of the 2012 season.
“I noticed something being off,” Laidley said.
The Cavs split a pair of preseason games and opened up the regular season with five straight one-goal victories — performances not nearly as dominant as their play in the last couple of weeks.
Sasnett said players weren’t performing to their potential, others weren’t cleared to play when the season started and injuries were taking their toll.
“But once we got our set team out there, I started believing,” the coach said. “As we are progressing and getting further through the season, they are really making me a believer.”
Darton is now blowing teams away and has won its last six games by an average of 3.8 goals. It’s the best start in school history and the toughest schedule Sasnett has ever put together. But the Cavs aren’t thriving on individual success.
No one on the team is in the Top 30 in the nation in goals scored, goalkeeper Carlos Catano is the No. 50-ranked goalkeeper in save percentage (.800) and Troy Tucker (21st) and Alejandro Garcia (43rd) are the only Cavs in the Top 50 in assists.
But no one is doubting that the Cavs are the top team in the nation.
“We have been told by opposing coaches that our kids conduct themselves in a professional manner and that it’s a pleasure to play soccer and not get caught up in the antics of being undisciplined and language and fussing and fighting,” Sasnett said. “We try to keep it as professional an environment as we can.”
Tucker said he and his teammates see their opponents’ best effort each night.
“Every team wants to beat us, no matter if they are in the top or bottom (of the standings),” said Tucker, a sophomore midfielder from Bermuda. “They want to beat us. It’s going to be hard the second time around to beat the teams we have already beaten.”
The Cavs swept the five region teams in the first half of the season but play them all again in the final five games of the regular season. They began that five-game stretch with a 5-0 victory Tuesday against South Georgia — the same team they barely beat in the season opener, 3-2.
Sasnett believes his team is getting better every day, especially in the midfield, where the Cavs dominate time of possession.
“We have very good possession,” Tucker said. “We really don’t score too much, but with us possessing the ball so much, there is always going to be an opportunity to score.
“Teams have been trying to stop our possession game, but that’s not going to work. We have been practicing possession, and we are used to all that pressure.”
The Cavs are also used to the pressure that comes with being a top junior college program, too.
“To be totally honest, we set a standard, and I expect us to be there,” Sasnett said.
And the Cavs are expecting to play in the national tournament next month on their own field.
“There’s pressure on me (to win a national title). There’s pressure on our guys,” Sasnett said. “But we don’t think about it in terms of ‘We are hosting the national championship so we have to win every game.’ We think of it in the terms of ‘We need to do all the things right in each day of practice to prepare for our next opponent so we can get a good seed in the region tournament.’ ”
A region championship automatically qualifies Darton for a national tournament appearance in this year’s postseason format, which is different from previous seasons when the Cavs had to win the region tourney and a district championship.
If the Cavs do return to nationals, they will look for their program’s first national title on a field they have won 16 straight games and are 22-1 at since 2010.
Needless to say, they expect to be the last team standing.
“That would hurt (not to win the national title),” Sasnett said. “And we use that as part of our motivation each match. But right now, everything is aimed toward that region tournament. We feel really good about our chances if we can stay healthy.”