Golfers To Start Spring Season
BOULDER - There are 10 student-athletes on the 2002-03 University of Colorado men's golf team roster, and of the two seniors listed, one is redshirting. So do some quick math and it is soon realized that coach Mark Simpson will be taking at least two freshmen to the Big 12 Championships in April.
But by the time the league title meet arrives, that will be old hat for the veteran CU mentor. In CU's six fall tournaments, Simpson took three freshmen on five occasions, and twice traveled with four. It's likely the youngest team in school history, but that doesn't mean it won't compete on a national level. In fact, Simpson is optimistic that by the end of the year, the Buffaloes can again be a top 25 program competing in the national finals.
Colorado entered the season coming off a 14th place finish in last year's NCAA Championship Finals, but that team boasted three experienced seniors in Ben Portie, Matthew Zions and Joe Liley, as well as Kane Webber and Stephen Carroll, juniors at the time. That quintet finished 10th at the NCAA Central Regional, edging conference rivals Oklahoma and Kansas for the last finals berth by a single stroke. The Buffs led after a rain-plagued first day of the NCAA Finals with a 280 score, were in fourth when all teams completed their first 18, then slipped as low as 22nd before rallying to close 2001-02 as the No. 14 team in the nation.
Carroll returns as the team leader and captain, while Webber decided to redshirt to get caught up on academics after falling a bit behind while dealing with family matters as a sophomore. The only other upperclassman on the squad is junior Jeff Hanson, who had a solid summer and emerged as a reliable No. 2 man in the fall behind Carroll. But after those two, it's the frosh follies, sans one sophomore, Mike Brenneman.
"It's one of the youngest teams I can remember in a long time, if not my youngest," said Simpson, who is in his 27th season as head coach. "With six freshmen on the team, two or three will always be traveling and will be starters at the end of the spring for the stretch run. Based on that, I knew we would have our ups and downs in the fall, which we definitely had. But I anticipate we will continue to improve as a team throughout the course of the spring, and I expect us to be nationally competitive by the end of the year."
Yet Simpson feels enough talent is present where he doesn't have to call it a rebuilding year. Good programs reload in lieu of rebuilding, and this is a chance to prove CU is among the elite. Helping the cause is the fact that an excellent recruiting class arrived in Boulder already fairly seasoned.
"The freshmen of today are a lot more experienced," Simpson noted. "There are a lot more opportunities for freshmen to play before they ever get to college. You have to be able to take your game on the road if you're going to be successful at any level of national or international golf. All these junior tournaments that are offered now allow these 14- and 15-year old kids the chance to do just that, to play nationally and experience competition that wasn't available even a decade ago.
"The opportunities have exploded in the last five years, and that's a credit to the American Junior Golf Association," he continued. "It has continued to grow, and grow and grow. They started it about 15 years ago, and other junior tours have joined them and they're all doing very well. It's even coming to the point that a young man could play in a junior tournament almost 52 weeks out of the year if he chose to do so.
"Our freshmen took advantage of those opportunities. That's a high priority in regards to my recruiting; what kind of game they have on the road. A vast majority of our recruits now and in the future will be judged on that."
Carroll and Hanson ranked 1-2 in stroke average in the fall, with averages of 73.87 and 74.87, respectively. Two frosh were next, Edward McGlasson (75.20) and Derek O'Neill (76.40). The four played in all five fall tournaments plus the GCAA Match Play Championships, and posted seven top20 finishes between them. While both freshmen experienced some expected growing pains, by the end of the fall Simpson had a solid nucleus to build around.
The questions for the spring include if those four, which separated themselves a bit from the rest, become the established core of the travel squad, and if so, then who comes out of the pack to become the No. 5 man.
Brenneman had the next best stroke average in the fall (78.33) but only played in one tournament, battling some problems with his game. But with some hard work, he's seemingly has overcome them and enters the spring ready to make a run at becoming a regular on the traveling team.
Four freshmen round out the roster, led by Ryan Anderson, who played in three fall meets plus the match play event, though he struggled a bit with a 79.0 stroke average. Mike Feuerstein played in one meet and in one match play pairing, and Blake Moore saw action in one tournament. The fourth frosh is a late addition to the team, as Shaun Justice joined the Buffs at the start of the spring semester. The Andover, England, product brings an impressive resume to the States and should immediately bolster the team's depth and raise the stakes that much more in qualifying competition.
"We have good leadership, good unity and good work ethic, which will do a lot for us when we get into the meat of our schedule. Those are three reasons that give me hope that we will continue to improve," Simpson said. There's no question that he is counting on his two seniors to lead by example.
"Steve has the best short game on the team, and one of the best in the country," he said. "The youngsters see the time he puts in working on it and the results he gets out of it. He came on strong at the end of last year and carried that play right through the fall season. And even though Kane isn't playing in tournaments this year, those freshmen are watching how hard he is working, both on his game and in the classroom, and that's leaving a lasting impression.
"In fact, Steve, Kane and Jeff, our upperclassmen, have been great assets to the team this year in that they're continuing to support, encourage and assist all the young guys, along with working hard on their own games to be leaders by example," he added.
Team-wise, CU didn't have a lot of great success in the fall, its best finish a fifth place tie in the 12-team field at Kansas State's Jim Colbert Intercollegiate. But a team score of 278 in the first round of that meet showed what the team is capable of, as did a good effort in the inaugural collegiate match play championships that closed the fall season.
The Buffs get five opportunities this spring prior to the seventh annual Big 12 Conference Championships, which move to Tulsa this spring, the first time the meet won't be played at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan. Simpson knows he'll have to take at least two freshmen, which he hopes by then are playing like anything but.
"It would be highly unusual to take three freshman to the Big 12," he said. "We'll see when get there, but it's a pretty strong possibility that we could take three; we know we'll definitely be taking two. But the reality is we can have two or three newcomers playing like experienced veterans by then.
"The Big 12 is wide open from what I can see right now," Simpson said. "We'll all be settled in by mid-March; there are some results out there that give us some indication, and there's no question that some teams are improved over last year from what we've seen in the fall. The next three months will be crucial in determining what kind of team we will all have."
As for team goals, Simpson doesn't shy away from some lofty ones.
"I'd like to finish in the top half of the Big 12 and in the top 20 at the NCAA Championship Finals," he proclaimed. "I think those are realistic goals. We have the talent, along with those three qualities I previously mentioned. Experience is our only obstacle to overcome. I could schedule a lot of tournaments we could win, but I don't believe that provides real confidence. We schedule tough for a reason. If you're going to be the best you have to play the best. We're not going to be a school that has a half dozen top three finishes and can't get into the NCAA championships. That's a disservice to your program."
Entering the spring, the Buffs are No. 85 in the Golfweek national rankings, to be expected with such a young team. But Simpson's scheduling should pay its dividends; CU ranked 14th in the most top 100 teams faced in the fall (55), and were 21st in the number of meetings (35) against top 50 and had the 32nd most versus the top 25 (16) of all the teams ranked in the top 100.
The spring season begins this Monday, as the Buffs head to Lakeland, Fla., to play in the Matlock Collegiate Classic. The two-day tournament will take place at the 7,065-yard, par-72 Grasslands Country Club, where a year ago the Buffs finished third, just five strokes out of the lead, in CU's best performance ever for a spring opener. Two rounds will be played Monday (with a shotgun start), with the final round slated for Tuesday morning. The Buffs will then head from Florida to the Caribbean for the Puerto Rico Classic later in the week.
Making the initial road trip of the spring will be the senior Carroll, sophomore Brenneman and three freshmen, Justice, McGlasson and O'Neill. Simpson's order out of the gate is based upon the results after six rounds of qualifying (including one trip around Boulder Country Club's nine-hole, par-3 layout) is O'Neill at No. 1, followed by Carroll, McGlasson, Brenneman and Justice. The middle trio actually tied for second and was ranked after a "chip-off." Hanson's bid to travel was hampered as he battled illness throughout qualifying.