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2013 PREVIEW: Darton golf begins anew — but with familiar leadership

ALBANY — Darton State head golf coach Dale Dover sat on a golf cart outside of Doubelgate Country Club on Friday afternoon watching practice and carrying on about his 2013 team.

Yes, his 2013 team.

Dover, the longtime former Darton coach and architect behind the Cavs’ three straight NJCAA National Championships from 2005-07, retired two years ago from coaching and became the program’s director of operations. But when the former player he turned the program over to, Bill Jones III, left for another opportunity, Dover knew who had to replace Jones.

Him.

“I was still very much involved,” Dover said of his role behind the scenes the last two years with the program in the director’s position. “I just didn’t deal with a lot of the day-to-day stuff that Bill did, that the coach has to tend to. There’s a lot behind making this program a success, and we work hard, especially at our fundraising. But when Bill left, I knew I would need to step back in, get it on solid footing and get it ready to hand off to Mr. Gary here.”

“Mr. Gary,” by the way, is Gary Hilton, another former Dover disciple off his 2002 team — the year Dover became head coach. Hilton has stayed with golf as a player since his collegiate days ended, but he hadn’t been teaching it when Dover began looking for the man to take the role as “associate head coach.” But Dover knew Hilton, who resides in Dawson and was working in hotel management when the job came open, and Dover was sure his former player knew his stuff.

“Gary’s really taken on a lot since he’s come aboard, and he’s doing a good job handling it and working with these guys,” Dover said with a nod at Hilton, who sat watching practice on a parallel golf cart near the putting green. “Part of my job as the director and head coach will be to evaluate Gary during the season and make sure he’s up to speed to take this thing over. And so far, like I said, he’s done a great job.”

Hilton, in other words, is now Darton’s coach-in-waiting, and this year’s group of nine guys — three sophomores and six freshmen — hope Dover and Hilton can help them vastly improve on last year’s program-worst 12th finish at the NJCAA nationals.

“So far it’s been great,” Hilton said of joining Darton’s program. “I feel like we’re working hard to have a great season. It’s a good group.”

The group is led by elder statesmen Taylor Martin, Tae Kim and Madison Turner, while the new faces include two-time Albany Herald Player of the Year Tyler Shamblin, a former Seminole County High School star.

“It’s been good to play for a team close to home that’s as good as Darton, and we’re deep. This is tough team,” Shamblin said. “It’s been a battle the last month just to play your way onto the team (and into the starting five).”

Shamblin is one of the two newcomers who posted qualifying rounds low enough in preseason practice to play in today’s 2013 fall season opener for the Cavs, who will tee off this morning at the Wallace State Invitational at the Cullman Golf Course in Cullman, Ala. The other is Jake O’Bryen, a freshman from Oglethorpe High School who is the reigning GHSA Class AA state champ. They will join sophomores Martin, Kim and Turner in the starting five for today’s opener.

“From top to bottom, we’re as solid as we’ve ever been for a first tournament of a season,” Dover said confidently. “And don’t think for a second anything was handed to these sophomores — they had to earn their way (into the starting five). If they didn’t, don’t think I’d be afraid to put five freshmen out there. That’s how talented this group is.”

It’s led by Martin, last year’s leading returning scorer. He’s the longest hitter and the most experienced. And Darton will likely go as far his clubs can take them.“He’s got the most raw talent,” Dover said. “But any one of these guys out here could challenge him.”

That includes a freshman from Ecuador named Rafael Miranda, who was actually the top qualifier in preseason practice. But Miranda won’t be joining the team in Alabama today because, according to the always-candid Dover, “(Rafael) had a hard time finding his classes the last two weeks. So we’re gonna give him some time to think about finding those classes.”

Rounding out this year’s Cavaliers team are three more freshmen: Seth Sanders of Macon, Hunter Elliot of Conyers and Josh Glossop, who came to the U.S. from England. And as one might imagine, there was a bit of a culture adjustment for young Mr. Glossop.

“The heat and humidity has been very different, and (the area) is very spaced out — a lot different from the small town I’m used to,” said Glossup, his British accent strong and distinguishable. “But I like it. We’re really coming together as a team, and at the same time we’re all fighting for our place. The competition has been great. It’s making all of us better”

O’Bryen wouldn’t disagree.

“This is such a talented group, any of us can put up low numbers at any given time,” he said.

And Turner said if that’s five freshmen one week who supplant he and his fellow sophomores, so be it.

“We weren’t great last year. We had talent, but we didn’t show it,” Turner said. “Definitely having some solid freshmen coming in, pushing you, it makes this team so much more competitive. These guys are good.”

So competitive, in fact, Turner feels the strength and depth of the 2013-14 Cavaliers golf team will shine through in their very first tournament today.

“I’d say with the team we’re taking, (finishing) anywhere out of the Top 2 would be a disappointment,” he said.

NOTES: Glossup said he loves the food in Southwest Georgia, including “all the burgers and Mexican food. I really like Taco Bell.” …Turner said the biggest difference between Jones and Dover as coaches is that Dover, being that he’s 40 years Jones’ senior, is likely to “be more stern with us. Kick our butts a little bit. And not that Bill wouldn’t, I just think coach Dover has an easier time of doing it — because he’s been doing it for a lot longer.” Dover laughed when told of Turner’s comments, but in an approving manner. “Well, good,” Dover smiled. “Guess they don’t think I’m so bad after all.” … Fifteen days after Darton finished that disappointing 12th at nationals — 29-over and 31 shots behind champion Central Alabama — Jones resigned, and shortly after then-freshman Parks Brown left the program. Brown finished a team-worst 15-over at nationals last season … The Cavs’ fall schedule is considerably lighter and less strenuous than their spring schedule, which counts toward making nationals. They’ll play six tournaments between now and mid-November, including their next one after this week on Sept. 30 at the Thomas University Invitational at Kinderlou Country Club in Valdosta.