LAS CRUCES, N.M. (May 4, 2016) – One championship barely eluded Oklahoma Christian on Wednesday in the final round of the NCAA Division II West-South Central Super Regional men’s golf tournament, but thanks to Sam Johnston, the Eagles won another title.
Johnston fired a sizzling 5-under 66 at University Golf Course to win the Super Regional individual crown by three shots, and while the Eagles dropped to second in the team race – just behind No. 1-ranked Chico State (Calif.) – they still accomplished their primary goal, to qualify for the NCAA Division II Championship in the program’s first year of eligibility to do so.
OC will join 19 other teams at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver for the national tournament, set for May 17-21. And there’s little doubt that the unranked Eagles made a name for themselves in Division II circles this week with their strong regional showing, leading the way after the first two rounds and battling Chico State down to the wire.
"What an incredible week," OC coach David Lynn said. "Our first NCAA postseason experience was amazing. All five guys contributed to our team score and that was key to our success. I am so proud of the journey this team has made from day one of practice to today, advancing to the NCAA finals in our first opportunity to do so.
"The guys have worked so hard both on and off the course and it’s extremely rewarding to see it pay off in this way. We stood toe-to-toe with the No. 1 team in the country and did not blink. Our guys fought hard until the end. Chico State finished just a bit better than us, but that’s what No. 1 teams do. We’re getting there and this experience will be so valuable in two weeks."
OC posted its third straight team score of 286 (2-over-par) to finish at 858. The Eagles ended up six shots behind Chico State, which recorded a 279. Besides Chico State and OC, the other team qualifiers for the national tournament were Dallas Baptist (Texas), California Baptist and Brigham Young-Hawaii, which finished at 867, 869 and 872, respectively.
Johnston, a senior from San Diego and a two-time Heartland Conference player of the year, entered the day in second place in the 108-man field but made the turn at 4-under after three straight birdies on No. 7, No. 8 and No. 9. He was 6-under before closing his round with his only bogey, at No. 18.
Despite that misstep, Johnston – who led the field in par-4 scoring (3.91) and was fourth in birdies with 13 – finished at 206, 7-under for the tournament, and had a comfortable margin of victory over runner-up Brandon Lee of Sonoma State (Calif.).
It was the fifth time in his career that Johnston has posted a 66 or better. His win was the first of his senior season but the seventh of his career, which ranks third in OC history behind only Bruno Buccolo (10 from 2004-2008) and Juan Lizzaralde (nine from 2001-2005). No one else has more than four.
"Sam was our rock," Lynn said. "The green speed played right into his strength as a player. His round today under the conditions was awesome. He stepped up when we needed him the most. Winning the NCAA regional individual championship is a fantastic accomplishment."
Also shining on the 7,119-yard course was the Heartland’s freshman of the year, OC’s Alejandro Valenzuela, who had a tournament-high 15 birdies and an eagle. He led the field in par-5 scoring (4.00). His even-par 71 on Wednesday included the eagle at the par-5 No. 14 as well as three birdies.
Valenzuela finished tied for eighth at 212, 1-under for the tournament.
"Alejandro was spectacular this week," Lynn said. "He made a few too many mistakes to contend, but to finish under par was huge for us."
OC sophomore Zac Schaefer shot a final-round 73 and tied for 43rd at 222. Freshman Juan Pallach’s 76 left him at 224, tied for 55th, while freshman Ethan Smith posted a 77 and closed at 225, tied for 63rd.
"I’m so proud of our entire team," Lynn said. "We can’t wait to get to Denver and compete with the best teams in NCAA Division II."