Eagles ready for challenge of NCAA D-II Championship

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DENVER – Oklahoma Christian long has been a small-college men’s golf power, with three national titles at the NAIA and NCCAA levels and an amazing run of 16 straight top-four finishes in national tournaments.

With the program entering NCAA Division II full-time this year and a young squad, OC coach David Lynn had resigned himself to believing there was little chance the streak would continue in 2016. The higher level of competition, the inexperience, the tough qualification process just to qualify for the NCAA postseason all figured to conspire against the Eagles.

But here the Eagles are – No. 12 with a bullet in the Division II coaches’ rankings and in the discussion as a contender at the Division II Championship, which will begin Tuesday at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club, arguably Colorado’s top public course.

"I never even let my mind wander that way," Lynn said when asked about the top-four-at-nationals streak. "I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t think it was even fair to sit back and say, ‘We’re going to qualify for finals and we’re going make the match play and finish in the top four.’ If you heap those kind of expectations on a young team, it can be a burden more than a challenge.

"What I wanted to have happen – and fortunately what happened – is let each tournament come and have the entire year build up as a staircase as you’re walking to the top of the stairs. As you do that, hopefully you’re playing your best golf when you get to the top of the staircase, and we are."

OC’s three-year transition from NAIA/NCCAA power to Division II was anything but smooth. At one point during the NCAA membership process, Lynn was down to five healthy, eligible players, and during that time, the program’s roster numbers remained in single digits.

With NCAA membership granted for 2015-16, Lynn opted to restock the talent level. He brought in eight newcomers, hoping to foster the sort of intra-squad competition that was a focus of the OC program when it was at its best.

At first, it didn’t go so smoothly. OC scuffled through its fall-semester schedule as Lynn searched for the right players to fill the lineup. But with the spring semester, he settled on his starting five and the Eagles suddenly began soaring, winning against a strong field (that included a pair of top-25 teams) at the Broncho Invitational at Gaillardia Country Club in Oklahoma City and contending in other big tournaments.

That success earned them a spot in the West-South Central Super Regional, the first stage of Division II’s postseason. In a 20-team field that included five top-25 squads, the Eagles led after the first day of play at University Golf Course in Las Cruces, N.M. Then they led after the second day.

Led by regional medalist Sam Johnston, the Eagles hung onto the lead on the final day until the last few holes, eventually finishing second, six shots behind then-No. 1 Chico State (Calif.). That high finish qualified them for this week’s 20-team national tournament.

NCAA men’s golf uses a unique format to determine its national champions. Teams will play three rounds of stroke play (54 holes) on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, after which the individual champion will be declared. The top eight teams then advance to a form of match play to determine the team champion, with the quarterfinals and semifinals on Friday and the final on Saturday.

OC’s high regional finish caught the attention of voters in the Bushnell Golfweek Coaches’ Poll, who vaulted the Eagles into the national rankings at No. 12. If that poll is to be believed, OC is the eighth-highest-ranked team at the national tournament. The Eagles are No. 18 in the Golfstat.com Relative Rankings, up from No. 70 at the start of the spring season.

"Nothing special really happened for us at regionals," Lynn said. "I think that we went there and played our game. One thing that was obviously special was that Sam got comfortable on the greens. The speed of the greens was so fast. … The pins were difficult. That just fell into our game, what we were used to and the speed of the greens fell into Sam’s wheelhouse."

OC would seem to have a legitimate contender for the individual title in Johnston, a senior from San Diego who is a two-time Division II All-American, a two-time Heartland Conference player of the year and a seven-time winner during his storied collegiate career. Lynn said for the Eagles to contend in the team race, it’s important for Johnston to lead the way.

"When he leads us like he did in the regional, we can compete with anybody," Lynn said. "When he’s competing for the championship, we’ve got enough horsepower in two-through-five to play with just about anybody."

Sophomore Zac Schaefer is the only other OC player with national-tournament experience, having started for the Eagles in the 2014 NCCAA Championship. He picked up his first career win in the Broncho Invitational and earned first-team All-Heartland honors. OC’s Alejandro Valenzuela was the Heartland’s freshman of the year and recorded a tournament-high 15 birdies in the Super Regional.

Two other freshmen, Juan Pallach and Ethan Smith, round out the OC lineup. Smith contributed a second-round 70 at the Super Regional that was key for the Eagles, and Pallach has shown the ability to shoot a low score at times as well.

"When you have guys doing that, that’s what it takes to be successful," Lynn said. "When you go to a tournament and you have five guys and all five of them have shown that they can put it in the 60s, that’s a recipe for success."

The Eagles played 15 holes on the par-72, 7,327-yard course during their practice round before giving up the battle against cold, wet weather that greeted them on Tuesday, but Lynn said they like the setup.

"It’s a great golf course," Lynn said. "Lots of scorable holes. I think the kids will have a lot of wedges in their hands if they hit the fairways. The course is in great shape. The greens are good."

And while the course is long, "you have to take into account we’re at 5,400 feet (elevation), so we’ve been telling the kids about seven percent off the shots. … It’s got some long holes. There’s lot of par-4s over 450 yards. There are a couple of par-5s that are over 600 yards. Tomorrow, we’re off at 7:30 a.m. (Mountain time) and it’s supposed to be 39 degrees and raining. It will be more about who can battle the elements early and not let it get away from them too much and keep their head about them."

There is a certain pride that goes with becoming the first OC team to qualify for a NCAA Division II national event, and doing so in the program’s first season of eligibility to do, Lynn said.

The performance of the men’s golf team and of women’s golf team member Audrey Meisch, who qualified as an individual for that Division II tournament  capped a successful spring for OC programs. A young OC softball team qualified for the Heartland tournament and the baseball team reached the final of its Heartland tournament, just missing a NCAA tournament bid. Hurdler Landon Huslig will represent the OC track and field programs later this month at the Division II Outdoor Championships.

"I am very proud of what our golf team is accomplishing," OC Athletic Director Curtis Janz said. "In our first year being eligible for NCAA Division II postseason play, we are showing that we can compete at a higher level. Coach David Lynn and his team are leading the way. We have had a great spring. The efforts of OC’s student-athletes and coaches are being recognized around our conference, region and Division II." 

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Ken MacLeod

Publisher Golf Oklahoma | Oklahoma's No. 1 Golf Source

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