Darton State College second-year coach Lea Henry, who came to Albany with a wealth of coaching experience — including at the Division I level — celebrates with her team after the Lady Cavs won the Region XVII championship in early March. (Herald file photo)
It was another successful year for the Darton State College sports teams, which combined for seven Region XVII champions and saw three athletes win individual national championships.
The junior-college campus was grief-stricken after a wrestler tragically collapsed and died from a heat-related illness in September and shocked when President Peter Sireno suddenly resigned in October — but through it all the athletic program was able to stay competitive on the national stage in nearly every sport.
Valdosta native and freshman Jamel Sharp won the school’s first wrestling national title with a championship in the 125-pound weight class; Crawford Berry won the school’s first diving national title by capturing gold medals in 1-meter and 3-meter men’s diving; and Sarah Hoop won gold in the 3-meter women’s diving national championship.
One of the most successful and exciting Darton teams to watch in 2013 was the women’s basketball team, which finished 30-4 to set a program record for wins and highest national ranking (12th) during the 2012-13 season and picked right back up with one of the top freshman classes in the nation for the 2013-14 season.
In March, the Lady Cavs wrapped up a perfect 18-0 record in their home gym with a 75-55 victory against Denmark Tech (S.C.) in the District J championship game in front of a packed crowd to punch their ticket to the national championship tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
“I am so proud of everything that our team has accomplished, because they have worked so hard for it and have really done all the right things,” Lady Cavs coach Lea Henry told The Herald in March as her team prepared for the national tournament, where Darton was upset in its first game by Blinn College out of Texas . “I think you sit back and reflect on it and really feel good about the season. Before you go to sleep at night or when you are on a walk by yourself or driving into work, you think about it. It’s important to appreciate what has happened this season and to have moments where you really enjoy it.”
It was a special year to be a Lady Cav, and a lot of that success was because they had such a special player in Michelle Mitchell, who graduated in the spring and recently transferred to Albany State from Division I Troy University.
Mitchell averaged 16.6 points per game and was named the Region XVII Player of the Year as a sophomore, and Henry recently called her a program-changing player.
“She is going to change (Albany State’s) program,” Henry said in regards to Mitchell transferring to Albany State. “She is that good. (ASU coach Robert Skinner) has a good team right now, but she is the one player who can kind of take you there. The one player who can take you up a notch.”
The Lady Cavs were one of seven teams to win Region XVII champions, a list that includes both the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, the men’s and women’s cross country teams, the women’s soccer team and the men’s golf team.
Darton diving coach Drew Aultman was named the national coach of the year, while Henry, cross country’s Bruce Skiles, men’s soccer’s Bart Sasnett, women’s soccer’s Ken Veilands and golf’s Bill Jones III were named region coaches of the year.
The baseball team was ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation but finished runner-up to Middle Georgia in the region tournament with an overall record of 42-13 — the best mark in program history.
“There is a sense of pride around here, a work ethic and a way that we handle our business,” baseball coach Scot Hemmings said in January before his second year in control of the program. “We are going to take care of business, and we are going to get you out of here. The guys have bought into that, and every day when they show up it’s work time.”
The cross country teams swept the region meet for the fifth straight year, while the men finished 25th at nationals and the women finished 26th. Elena Oslund was the Region XVII Runner of the Year.
Both soccer teams were among the top squads in the nation throughout their seasons. The Lady Cavs were led by region player of the year Lyana Perez and finished 20-1 in the regular season to earn a No. 4 seed in the national championship, where they were eliminated after a tiebreaking mini-game with a golden goal in a sudden-death playoff.
“At the end of the day, for this team to be 21-2 with the two injuries we suffered and the amount of freshmen we had, that’s pretty impressive,” Veilands said last month, eluding to season-ending injuries to star players Stephanie Anes and Brittanie Hensley. “Not winning the tournament and not being in the finals certainly doesn’t diminish that.”
Veilands also became the all-time winningest junior-college coach in Georgia history this season and has a career record of 236-39-11 since starting the program in 2000.
The men’s soccer team, led by region player of the year Darwin Espinal, ended the season ranked fifth in the nation but was upset in the region semifinals by Eastern Florida State.
The Darton golf team got new leadership when Jones stepped down as coach in June, and long-time coach Dale Dover and Gary Hilton took over the program in August. Back in the spring, Jones directed the Cavs to a 12th straight region title and trip to nationals, where they finished a disappointing 12th.
Region championships and national rankings are becoming the norm at Darton, which is what makes another year of banners and trophies The Herald’s No. 6 sports story of 2013.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Herald’s sports staff has chosen Southwest Georgia’s Top 10 sports stories from 2013. Today marks the fifth of the 10 we’ve picked as having a significant impact as we count down to No. 1, which will appear in the Jan. 1 edition. Look for No. 5 in Saturday’s Herald.