ALBANY — When Ken Veilands was awarded the Darton soccer program in 2000, he didn’t have a field, goals or any players.
“I didn’t even have a single soccer ball,” he said on Wednesday. “We started with nothing.”
Thirteen years later, Veilands has turned that humble beginning into a career that most only dream about, and now the Darton women’s soccer coach is on the verge of becoming the winningest coach in Region XVII history.
He turned the program into a national powerhouse and has led the Lady Cavs to a 224-38-11 record. He got win No. 224 on Tuesday against Andrew to tie former Young Harris College coach Kathy Brown for most career victories, and Veilands can stand alone among junior college coaches in Georgia history with win No. 225 Saturday against Polk State College.
It’s been an amazing ride for Veilands since he agreed to start both the men’s and women’s soccer programs at the start of the century, something even he shakes his head at when reflecting on the journey.
“I got hired in February and I had to have two teams on the field in August. I think back to all of that, and those are the things I think about when you look at that number,” Veilands said. “There are a lot of wins there, and there are a lot that went on to get it there. It went from adding soccer to trying to convince the administration that I am serious and can make this into something special. All of those years have added up to the wins.”
There’s been the wins, but there’s also been the memories and life-changing relationships.
He has coached 60 first-team All-Region players, 27 All-Americans, 10 Academic All-Americans and five Region Players of the Year. During that span, he’s never finished below .500 for a season — including his first year when he was 12-3-0 — and has won five region championships.
“He’s definitely a special coach,” current Darton goalkeeper Hong Tran said. “He has the mentality to win, win, win. He accepts nothing less than that. And the amount of time he has been here it shows you how much he loves this sport and this place. He has made it an atmosphere where everybody is so competitive.”
Midfielder Chevelle Lopez, who has a team-high seven assists this season and is one of the stars on a Lady Cavs team that is currently ranked No. 12 in the country, agrees with Tran.
“He is a no-nonsense coach,” Lopez said. “Darton soccer is a major part of him. You can tell just by the way he goes about doing his job. He is a great coach.”
It all started for Veilands back in Indiana, where he was a star soccer player at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville. He was named his team’s defensive player of the year in 1986 and tried to parlay that success into a professional soccer career with the Fort Wayne Flames, but instead ended up pursuing a career in the corporate world and eventually latched on with the Gillette Company. With Gillette, he moved from Indy to Atlanta to New Orleans to Memphis, periodically coaching club soccer along the way but never sticking around in one place for long.
But then Veilands got married and settled down in Albany, and soccer started to creep back into his life.
He got involved with club soccer and worked with youth on the Darton campus, and then in 2000 when then-Darton athletic director Nancy Abraham was hiring somebody to start both the men’s and women’s programs, Veilands’ resume came across her desk.
Veilands believes it was his business background that was the deciding factor in him being offered the job.
“This is like a business,” he said. “You are running a small company. You are budgeting. You are doing the finance side of it. You are managing people. It’s really very similar to running a business. I think that played a big part of me getting the job.”
Turns out, he was one heck of a soccer coach, too.
In his first season, his teams had to play their games at the YMCA fields and practice on a piece of land on campus that is now used for intramural sports, and he had to call up an old friend in Indiana to help him purchase the equipment necessary to start a program.
But through all of the growing pains, Veilands never gave up.
“I refused to fail,” he said. “That was in my blood. I wasn’t going to come in here and fail. If I was .500 for the first four or five years I probably would have left. I wouldn’t have been happy with that.”
In just his second year with Darton — the same year the school built two brand-new soccer fields — the women’s team reached No. 14 in the national polls, and the program began to receive national exposure.
But the Lady Cavs and Veilands were still standing in the shadow of Young Harris, which was the Region XVII powerhouse under Brown.
“Nobody was talking about us being a national contender when we first started,” Veilands said. “Everybody was just talking about us being able to compete within our region. Young Harris was the dominant team in the region and never lost any games to anybody. They were winning it every year, and I was looking at that and saying, ‘If I can ever get to that level and beat them, then that will be a big accomplishment.’ ”
Then in 2005, the Lady Cavs finally beat Young Harris, first in the regular season and then again in the region tournament to advance to the national tournament for the first time in school history. They finished the 2005 seasons as national runners-up and set a national record for 25 consecutive wins in a season.
A year earlier, in 2004, Veilands had handed the men’s program off to current Cavs coach Bart Sasnett, who has since helped the men rise to the same level of national prominence as the women.
When asked Wednesday why he stuck with the women’s program instead of the men, Veilands pointed to a family picture on his desk.
“It was simple,” he said as he looked at a picture of himself with his daughters Mattie and Ansley. “To me that was an easy decision. If I would have had two sons, I may have chosen to stay with the men’s team.”
Sasnett believes Veilands has become just as good a father as a soccer coach.
“The guys balances his home life with two kids and still finds a way to get the work done,” Sasnett said. “It speaks volumes of how he is able to balance his home life and his professional career. In addition to all of his success with soccer, he raised two very good girls.”
Since that 2005 season, the Lady Cavs have a record of 154-15-6 with only five losses coming in the regular season, have spent 19 weeks as the No. 1-ranked team in NJCAA and have finished as national runners-up three times.
But Veilands can’t reminisce about his coaching career without talking about his family.
“It’s funny how you can look back at everything,” he said. “Coaching is a big part of your life emotionally. It creates this timeline that you associate your life with.
“I look back at 2005 when we went to the national tournament and set a record that still stands for consecutive wins in a year and we lost a national championship that year. That was a point in my life personally when I was going through a divorce, so I was teetering with all of the success going on in soccer with the struggles off the field.”
He associates particular soccer seasons with the biggest moment’s in his life, and smiles when talking about the 2013 season — a year when his oldest daughter, Mattie, got her learner’s permit and played both soccer and cross country for Deerfield-Windsor and when Ansley participated in softball.
“I know this year will always be associated with that,” he said.
In the same way, this era of greatness for the Lady Cavaliers will always be associated with Veilands.
“It’s great to see that he was able to keep it consistent year in and year out,” Sasnett said. “Junior college is very difficult because you are bringing in a different class every year. I think his ability to relate to his players and stay focused on the prize at the end of the year is instrumental to why he is so successful. This guy takes every practice and every game to heart. He is relentless during his efforts to be successful.”
But as intertwined as Darton soccer and Veilands have been for over a decade, he admits his time with the program is waning.
“I feel like I am at the twilight of coaching,” said Veilands, who turns 50 next month. “I don’t want to hang on. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I am hanging on. I don’t think Darton would ever tell me that if I don’t win a national championship then I am out of here.”
Veilands is even thinking about stepping away after this season.
“I’ve contemplated it,” he said when asked if this was his final season. “I seriously thought about it last year actually. There was a point where I felt like the amount of work that it takes to mold these kids and operate within our system and trying to get them academically to do the things you need them to do and keep all of those pieces together. There was a point I felt like I was outnumbered and couldn’t do it all.”
Of course, a national championship would make the decision to leave a lot easier.
“I don’t want to get hung up on that, but believe me I want to win that national championship more than anybody,” he said. “I feel like if I did and with how hard I worked to get there, I don’t know if there would be anything left for me.”