If You Build It, They Will Come
Darin and Netra Van Tassell’s Field of Dreams
Millions of eyes from around the world likely saw Statesboro for the first time this past November when South Georgia Tormenta Fútbol Club (FC), a professional soccer organization co-owned by Georgia Southern University alumni Darin H. Van Tassell (’89) and Netra R. Van Tassell (’90), won its first national championship in the new Tormenta Stadium.
The excitement was palpable on game day as more than 3,000 guests waved blue and white flags and chanted in the stands. When Tormenta scored its second goal to take home the prized title with a final score of 2-1, it was also a win for Statesboro.
“We completely believed that Statesboro was ready to be a professional sports town,” Darin said. “This is a sports and entertainment destination like all good university towns are. It’s one of the identifiers for our region.”
As a former international studies professor who taught at Georgia Southern for 24 years, Darin’s teaching and research honed on international relations, economic development and national identity, anchored by what he calls the “four global languages.”
“To understand nations, one needs to appreciate we are studying a cultural entity, and nothing quite gets to such insight as the four global languages of food, music, art and sport,” he said. “Those languages are identifiers and things that bind communities together. And if you want to create community-built identities, these are four areas that can connect and bind us rather than separate us. And so we put that logic to work.”
The markers are key to Darin and Netra’s vision for the buildout of a 330-acre corridor adjacent to Georgia Southern’s south campus near the corner of US 301 and the Veterans Memorial Parkway bypass in Statesboro. The area is earmarked for approximately $150 million in residential and retail development over the next several years, as they look to further amplify Statesboro and southeast Georgia’s profile. Recruitment and retention of Georgia Southern students play a role in that vision.
Included in the investment is a megaplex with the 5,300-seat Tormenta soccer stadium that overlooks Optim Sports Medicine Field, which was once a cotton field, just across the bypass from the University’s intramural fields in Statesboro. The 44,000-square-foot venue has a sophisticated underground network of technology that supports a four-story music venue that will host top acts from around the country when completed. The space is also being outfitted with 42 luxury suites and condominiums, and a restaurant and craft brewery.
Construction, including the newly opened Publix and the other adjacent commercial sites underway, have already moved in next door to the stadium. In addition, new roads and a bus stop forged in conjunction with the city and Georgia Southern’s south campus expansion now ushers patrons to the area.
“We want to reach, we want to bridge,” Darin said. “I think if we’re seeking to have a legacy here, we want Tormenta and the larger development to be a part of that legacy, and to use those things that build and bind.”
Initially, Darin and Netra didn’t set out to create a legacy.
COLLEGE SWEETHEARTS AT HANNER FIELDHOUSE
Darin, who is from Statesboro and comes from a long line of Eagles, was a political science major and four-year letterman baseball player for the University while Netra, who studied early childhood education, headed south from Atlanta to swim for the collegiate team. As upperclassmen, the two athletes literally ran into each other at Hanner Fieldhouse, quickly bonded and were married two years later.
Darin and Netra left Statesboro to earn graduate degrees in international studies and special education, respectively, and returned several years later when Darin accepted a “dream position” with Georgia Southern as a professor and assistant baseball coach for the legendary Jack Stallings. Netra also joined the University in the College of Education. Years later, as they began their family, Darin was congruently making a name for himself on the international baseball scene, and big job offers poured in from New York and Switzerland.
“We really thought long and hard about every single one of the offers that came across,” Netra explained. “It just didn’t feel right or peaceful. Finally, when we decided to stay here, it all just felt right. We decided to commit to Statesboro for us as a family and for the community.
“And then we said, ‘Well, we won’t be happy just doing the typical, you know, two kids and a dog.’”
The couple broke ground on a golf range when the oldest of their two children, Whitt, was one year old. Several years later, they added The Clubhouse, a family-style entertainment venue that now spans 38 acres and offers go-carts, a mini-golf course, bowling, laser tag and a bar and grill.
“But at that point in time, we really didn’t have a vision of the entirety as it sits today,” said Darin. “We definitely didn’t envision pro soccer coming our way.”
Darin went on to become the youngest head coach in Olympic history at 28 years old, leading the Nicaraguan National Olympic Baseball Team in the 1996 Games in Atlanta, among many other international posts. At the same time, the world’s most popular sport, soccer, was gaining traction in the United States. It was their youngest son, Payne (’22), who introduced the sport to the family and later played for Georgia Southern.
As professional soccer burgeoned, the United Soccer League (USL) kicked off its inaugural season in 2011. The chance to franchise with USL soon appeared, and Darin and Netra grasped the opportunity. At present, Statesboro is only one of three cities in Georgia with a professional sports team.
In 2015, they entered the soccer arena with a USL League Two pre-professional team that has sent more than 60 players to the professional leagues, and in 2018, added the USL League One team, which captured the 2022 championship, to their roster. Last year, a pre-professional USL Women’s League (USL W) was introduced, and Tormenta wrapped its first season in USL W with the national title as well, making it the first time in U.S. soccer history that double titles have been won by the same franchise.
The Tormenta FC organization is also home to roughly 1,600 youth families in its Academy, which offers soccer opportunities for children ages 2 and up, as well as vast training opportunities for those with the goal of going pro.
From 2016 through most of 2022, Tormenta games were played on Georgia Southern’s Eagle Field at Erk Russell Park. On October 1, the first game in the team’s own stadium was special for the Van Tassells, the players and the community.
“It was magic, and it all connected,” said Netra. “I got chills. It was really awesome.”
On the road to becoming national champions, Netra stresses that family and community are core to the team, with players from 14 different countries. There is nurturing and mentorship that extends beyond athleticism.
‘WE’RE A FAMILY’
Gathered in the far right wing of The Clubhouse, where the Tormenta League One players share lunch every day, the atmosphere is familial. On game days, there’s a group pre-game meal, followed by a hug for each player from Netra. Just before they hit the field, the players stop by their lockers where they find a personal note from Netra tucked into their jerseys.
“The one thing that is important for me, and is also important for us as owners, is we’re very connected with our players,” Netra said. “And you don’t just come here to play soccer. You actually come here to be a part of the community, to be involved, to make relationships and build relationships. It’s like family because we are a family.”
The team’s connection also extends to Darin and Netra’s alma mater, which still holds a special place in their lives.
“There’s a very specific reason why our main colors are navy and white,” said Netra. “We splashed a little magenta into our color palette, but we love Georgia Southern and we let our joy bleed into both.”
— Story by Melanie Simón
— Photos by Jonathan Chick