Darton’s Lyana Perez shoots past Georgia Military College defender Linda Rodriguez during Wednesday’s game. Perez scored twice in Darton’s 5-0 victory. (Staff Photos: John Millikan)
MELBOURNE, Fla. — Since starting the Darton women’s soccer program 13 years ago, head coach Ken Veilands has returned from the NJCAA national tournament empty handed four times.
Trip No. 5, however, might be what the state’s winningest junior college coach has been waiting for.
There’s a special feeling about this year’s Darton team, which will be taking its 20-1 record and No. 4 national ranking into today’s NJCAA national tournament opener against Owens (Ohio) Community College.
“We are definitely special,” sophomore midfielder Emily Atkinson said. “Everybody is expecting great things when we get to the tournament. We have the chemistry and the bond. We are just a group of sisters ready to play soccer.”
They’ve played some of the best soccer in the nation this season, outscoring their opponents 97-11 while staring down adversity at almost every turn.
Two of the team’s stars and top midfielders/defenders Stephanie Anes and Brittanie Hensley went down with season-ending injuries early in the year, and the Lady Cavs have had to fight through the distractions of the school’s president suddenly resigning and a campus mourning the tragic loss of a wrestler.
The Lady Cavs emerged from it all with one of their best regular seasons in program history and with a 12-game winning streak heading into this week’s tournament.
“It’s been a pleasant situation when there have been some difficult situations taking place recently,” Veilands said.
On a team full of talent, freshman Lyana Perez has shined brightest with 38 goals and 88 points, which both rank third in the country. She was named the Region XVII Player of the Year after dominating in the region tournament with five goals in two games.
“Anybody that sits back and watches the video tape of her in the region tournament would just say, ‘Oh my god,’ ” Veilands said of Perez, a native of Peru. “Teams will scout us and see that she is our big goal scorer. Most kids like that are like that because of their speed, but Lyana’s strength is her ability to play with both feet and set people up and beat them. It’s going to be hard for people to focus on her.”
Perez will try to keep her sensational season rolling against No. 9 seed Owens CC and No. 5 seed Butler (Kan.) Community College, Darton’s opponent on Wednesday. Darton, Owens and Butler will all play each other in pool play, with the winner advancing to Friday’s semifinals.
Last season, Darton was unable to make it out of pool play.
But Atkinson, a Thomasville native and sophomore midfielder with eight assists this season, believes this year’s team looks nothing like the 2012 squad that surprised many by winning the Region XVII tournament and advancing to nationals.
“We are going as a totally different team with a totally different mindset,” she said. “Last year was more about enjoying the experience, but this year we have a higher standard. We really think we can win it all.”
The Lady Cavs have the scoring to bring home their first championship trophy after three runner-up finishes in the past decade.
They also have the defense in goalkeeper Hong Tran, who is 14th in the nation with a goals-against average of 0.66 and has nine shutouts, which ranks fourth in the country.
“It’s a team effort,” Tran said about her team’s defense. “They have to go through 10 players to get to me. My teammates know that I will be there for them, and I know they will be there to cover for me.”
Tran has only given up three goals during Darton’s 12-game winning streak, but it’s been 15 days since the Lady Cavs were last on the field for their region championship game against Georgia Perimeter, and Veilands understands the danger of a long layover.
“We have been idle for two weeks, and that’s a dangerous thing,” he said. “But we have done things a little differently this past week and changed it up with a couple of days of two-a-day practices and brought some guys in to speed up the play. So when we step on that field the first game, there will be anxiety.
“But I feel like we are certainly as athletic as anybody in the tournament. If we can combine that with good soccer and use our minds as well as our bodies on the field, I don’t see anything that can stop us.”
Neither does Tran.
“With the effort we have put into this program this season,” Tran said, “it has to pay off and get us somewhere.”