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Lady Cavs open season motivated by last year’s nationals loss

Darton defensive star Stephanie Anes, a sophomore from London, is one of eight returners from last season’s team that lost to Brevard Community College, 5-1, in the national quarterfinals. (John Millikan)

Darton defensive star Stephanie Anes, a sophomore from London, is one of eight returners from last season’s team that lost to Brevard Community College, 5-1, in the national quarterfinals. (John Millikan)

ALBANY — Stephanie Anes cringed when she heard the score.

Darton’s sophomore defender hesitated to even talk about last season’s 5-1 loss to Brevard in the NJCAA national quarterfinals — a defeat that still stung as she sat next to the Lady Cavs’ field before Tuesday’s practice.

“It hurts. Of course it hurts,” she said. “Losing by one is bad enough, but we let five goals past us. It’s like we let ourselves down.”

But sometime between that Nov. 14 blowout and Tuesday’s preseason practice, Anes and the rest of the Lady Cavs picked themselves back up, and coach Ken Veilands believes his team is now stronger than ever.

“We are going to be different this year. There is no question about it,” Veilands said. “I think that last year was a struggle to get off the ground. The pieces were there, and it was just trying to figure out how to put the right pieces into place. It was a lot of work.”

It took nearly half of last season for Darton to turn into a national title contender, but Veilands, whose Lady Cavs enter today’s season opener at Mississippi Gulf Coast ranked No. 8 in the nation, believes this year’s team has the maturity to contend right away.

The Lady Cavs return eight sophomores but have also added a handful of transfers, including former Valdosta State goalkeeper Hong Tran, West Florida’s Brittanie Hensley and former Peruvian national player Lyana Perez.

“We have an added level of maturity that I feel comfortable about,” Veilands said. “Our playing maturity is much better right now than it was last year.”

No one knows more about the importance of maturity than Hensley, a defender who played in nearly half of West Florida’s games last season as a true freshman and was instrumental in the Lady Argonauts’ Division II national championship.

“I know how it feels to go to the national championship and know what the pressure is and what maturity level we all need to be on and how the whole team needs to be together,” said Hensley, who has her eyes set on a Division I transfer next season after spending one year at Darton.

“I try not to talk (with my Darton teammates) about winning a national championship much because I don’t want to be too obnoxious, but occasionally they will mention it to me, and I just tell them that it’s not one person who (wins a national title). It’s a team effort, and you can’t get there unless the whole team wants it.”

The Lady Cavs, who finished 14-6 last season after having a 10-game winning streak snapped by Brevard, are deeper than ever as they try to extend their streak of Region XVII championships to three.

They are also trying to return to nationals for the third straight year, a feat that hasn’t been done since Veilands started the Darton program 14 years ago. Since 2005, Veilands has put together a regular-season record of 145-14-6 and has led the Lady Cavs to a national runner-up performance three times.

Veilands believes this could finally be the season the Lady Cavs break through, washing away the bitter taste of how last year ended.

And like Anes, Veilands hasn’t forgotten about the 5-1 blowout, either. But unlike in past years, the Lady Cavs will have to wait until the national tournament to exact any revenge on Brevard, which changed its name over the summer to Eastern Florida State College.

“(EFSC coach Jeff Carr) didn’t want to play us this year,” Veilands said. “I called him and told him that we would come to him on a weekday, weekend, whatever. He kept saying it wouldn’t fit in his schedule. … He didn’t want to play us because he wants to stay at (No. 2) for his seeding.”

Veilands called Brevard’s actions in the national quarterfinals last season “poor sportsmanship” after Carr left his starting lineup in toward the end of the game as Veilands cleared his bench, resulting in a 3-1 score quickly ballooning to 5-1.

“We were tired, and in my mind I knew we hit that point (where we weren’t coming back),” Veilands said. “I decided to put the kids in who hadn’t gotten in yet and let them play in the national tournament. He kept his starters in, and in fact had an All-American who scored in the last minute. She took the ball from the back and dribbled it all the way to the front and scored. In my eyes, that was very poor sportsmanship.”

So when Veilands talks about finally bringing a national title to his program, whispers of vindicating that loss to Brevard aren’t far behind.

“This is my 14th year of doing this, and I’ve had three national championship appearances,” he said. “I would like to win one, and if it’s beating Brevard then that’s fine with me. Or if it’s beating them on the way, that’s fine, too. But yeah, I would like to beat them.”

Anes and Hensley will anchor Darton’s defense and midfield, Tran will begin the year as the starting goalkeeper and Perez and freshman Eleana Colvin could be two of the team’s top scorers.

But Veilands also cautioned that goals could come from pretty much anybody on the team.

“I think with the system of play we are playing and with our style that we are going to see a lot of people scoring,” he said. “We have had those years where we have had the leading scorers in the country, but we aren’t going to be built that way this year. I think we will be spread out among a lot of people.”

NOTES: Darton opens the season with three games on the road before its first appearance at home Sept. 4 against South Georgia College. … The Lady Cavs’ toughest game of the season will likely be Aug. 29 at Division II West Georgia. The game is officially a scrimmage for Darton, but Veilands said it will be a “good gauge” for his team. … Hensley is the first women’s soccer player to transfer from West Florida to Darton, but the Lady Cavs have sent several of their top players to Pensacola in recent years. Goalkeeper Sarah Story, midfielder Shelby Bush and forward Sashana Campbell were all Darton transfers on last year’s West Florida national title team. … The Lady Cavs will host the Region XVII tournament for the second year in a row on Nov. 1-2.