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PREVIEW: Darton golf hoping to stay hot at nationals

Cavs open NJCAA national tournament today

Darton freshman and Macon native Seth Sanders is one of five Cavs who will play in the NJCAA national tournament this week. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

Darton freshman and Macon native Seth Sanders is one of five Cavs who will play in the NJCAA national tournament this week. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Darton assistant golf coach Gary Hilton, right, helps Tae Kim on the 18th tee box at Stonebridge Golf and Country Club during the Cavs’ district tournament last month. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

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Darton’s Taylor Martin putts on the ninth hole at Stonebridge Golf and Country Club during the Cavs’ victory at the District IV Championship last month. (Staff Photo: John Millikan)

BURLINGTON, Iowa — Darton State golf coach Dale Dover is no stranger to the NJCAA national tournament.

And he knows exactly what his team’s mentality should be this week when they step on Spirit Hollow Golf Course, where the Cavs will try to bring home Darton’s first Division I junior-college national championship.

“I told them we are going to expect to win,” said Dover, the long-time Darton coach who led the Cavs to NJCAA Division II national titles in 2005, ’06 and ’07.

That’s how the Cavs are thinking entering the four-day tournament in Iowa, which begins with today’s opening round.

Darton enters the tournament with three straight tournament victories at the Ron Marshall Spring Fling, the Region XVII tournament and the District IV championship, and the Cavs believe they have enough momentum to make a run at a national title.

“We are probably the hottest team in the country right now coming into nationals,” freshman Jake O’Bryan said. “We are definitely confident in each other and are ready to pull it off and shock the world.”

O’Bryan will be joined by sophomores Madison Turner, Tae Kim and Taylor Martin and freshman Seth Sanders — five players who have all shot under par at least once this season. It’s a group without a clear-cut No. 1, but Dover said any of them could emerge as a leader this week.

“I could be totally wrong, but if they play together like they have been playing I see us having a good chance,” Dover said. “We don’t have a star player, but they are all playing together right now. It’s been different guys on different days, and that’s what you need. We feel like every player we have is pretty solid. There’s not a glaring weakness on the team like we have had in the last few years.”

The Cavs have depth, something they were missing the past three seasons when they finished no better than fifth in the country.

“Any of them could come out and play well,” Dover said. “I don’t know who our Nos. 1 and 2 players are. You can throw them in a sack, shake them all up and throw them out, and any of them could be No. 1.”

But as good as they have been playing the last two months, it was a rocky start for the Cavs back in the fall when they went winless in five tournaments — including the Distirct IV preview, which Darton hosted at Stonebridge Golf and Country Club but finished 16 shots behind champion Eastern Florida State.

Doubt started to creep in.

“I knew we were a good team and had a lot of talent, but after the district preview I really didn’t see us winning three (tournaments) in a row,” Sanders said.

In late March, something finally clicked.

After losing their first three tournaments of the spring season — including their own Doublegate Collegiate Invitational — the Cavs rattled off three straight tournament victories to break a year-long drought.

Then they started believing.

“Now we have a ton of confidence,” Sanders said. “Everybody is playing good.”

Playing against some of the top teams in the country, the Cavs picked up their first win of the season in Scottsboro, Ala., with a victory in the Ron Marshall Spring Fling. Then they followed it up with their 13th straight region championship and a come-from-behind victory at district.

It’s been nearly a month since the district championship, but Turner doesn’t think there will be any rust this week.

“During the season you are playing about every week or every other week, but I think it was good for us to have a little bit of a break and just practice,” he said.

“From where we started, we knew we had talent the whole way, but getting that first win was the hardest one. I think that we have shown that we can win the big-time tournaments.”