Darton’s players celebrate moments after winning the program’s third straight Region XVII title on Sunday with a 4-0 victory against rival Georgia Perimeter. (Staff photo: John Millikan)
ALBANY — It was a day and a celebration Darton needed.
As the junior college wraps up a semester that has been darkened by the tragic death of a wrestler and the sudden resignation of its president, the campus finally had something to celebrate on Sunday afternoon as the women’s soccer team defeated bitter rival Georgia Perimeter, 4-0, in the Region XVII title, punching its ticket to the NJCAA national tournament.
It was an emotional victory for both the school and the Lady Cavs, but it was especially meaningful to Darton coach Ken Veilands, who has now led the program to three straight region titles and seven in 14 seasons.
Veilands, the 14-year coach, hinted that Sunday’s title might be his last.
“You don’t know, this might be the last time around. That’s gone through my mind,” said Veilands, the winningest coach in Region XVII history. “If this ends up being my last trip around, I’m glad I can go out on top.”
The Lady Cavs held on to their reign of Region XVII supremacy and did so in dominating fashion, posting their 14th shutout of the season and avenging their only region loss all year — a 2-0 setback to Perimeter on Sept. 20.
It was a title that many figured the Lady Cavs wouldn’t be able to win after season-ending injuries to stars Stephanie Anes and Brittanie Hensley, but Darton found a way to persevere.
“We lost really good players, and a lot of people really didn’t believe that we would make it all the way through,” said goalkeeper Hong Tran, who has nine shutouts in her last 12 games. “But it just shows that hard work comes out on top.”
Anes and Hensley were both starters and leaders on a Darton team that has now won 12 in a row with their absence.
“We rebounded from that,” Veilands said. “We have had all the highs and lows you have with 19- and 20-year-old kids and the intensity of the season. We persevered through that and stayed focused. I have been through this enough that I know when times get tough during the season that you have to keep your eye on the prize. It’s not always going to be glamorous. It was hard work.”
No one stepped up more during the Lady Cavs’ title run than Lyana Perez, who scored twice on Sunday and three times in a semifinal win Saturday against Middle Georgia. The native of Peru now has 38 goals this season, which is tied for second in the nation, and was named the region Player of the Year.
“Lyana proved that she is the best player in this region. She popped three goals (Saturday), and we saw how she played (Sunday),” Veilands said. “She was the best player, and I don’t think anybody can question that.”
After the win, Veilands was named the Region XVII women’s Coach of the Year for the fifth time in his career.
“I told (the players) before the game that the other coaches voted me as the Coach of the Year, but it would mean nothing if we didn’t win this game,” he said. “It would not mean a thing to me. But I told them if we won this game, it would mean something.”
Perez nearly put Darton on the board within the first 10 minutes, but her goal was called back for an offsides penalty. Minutes later freshman Brianna Lemerise netted the first goal on an assist from Perez to put Darton on top, 1-0.
Lemerise, a Mount Dora, Fla., native, did her trademark back flips after the goal — and then went flipping across the field again as the team celebrated the title.
“Yeah, that was the most (flips) I’ve done,” Lemerise said with a laugh. “And I felt like I got pretty high (with the last ones).”
Perez scored the second and third goals, and freshman Megan Thomas wrapped up the scoring with the final goal.
“After the third goal we knew it was over,” Tran said. “They put their heads down, and we just kept moving forward and took the win.”
The nationally-ranked No. 4 Lady Cavs will now await their seed for the 12-team NJCAA national tournament in Melbourne, Fla., which begins Nov. 18. This is Darton’s third straight trip to nationals and the fifth appearance in program history for the Lady Cavs, who have finished as national runners-up three times.
“I think that we stand a good chance to have a good seed, but regardless we will have a quality team and will go there planning on bringing it home,” Veilands said.