Gators are team to beat at Homestead
The rest of the field will be hunting Gators at the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship.
Top-ranked Florida, despite coming off a fifth-place performance at the NCAA East Regional, undoubtedly is wearing the bull’s-eye as the team to beat June 1-4 at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va.
Heading into regionals, Florida had won seven tournaments, finished second four times and third once. The Gators have been No. 1 in the Golfweek/ Sagarin College Rankings for the entire spring season.
“We’re not thinking about being the favorite or about everyone being after us,” said Florida coach Buddy Alexander, a winner of two NCAA titles (1993 and 2001) with the Gators. “What we have to do is think about ourselves and go out and play our best. If we do that, we should have a chance.”
For Alexander, who was selected SEC Coach of the Year for the seventh time, this was his best regular season in 17 years at Florida.
“The thing about Florida is not only do they have some very good players, but they have great team chemistry and depth,” said South Carolina coach Puggy Blackmon. “Each player knows if he’s having an off day, he’s got four other guys out there to pick up the slack. Is this year’s team better than the one that won the NCAA in 2001? No question about it. It’s not even close. This team is so much better because of how solid they are all the way through the lineup.”
Entering the postseason, Florida had a 72-6-2 record against top 25 teams, was 112-6-2 vs. the top 50 and 152-6-2 overall. And that’s after spending the spring without one of its best players, sophomore James Vargas. An honorable mention All-American as a freshman, Vargas was declared academically ineligible at the end of the fall semester but was back with the team at the East Regional.
Vargas worked to get his grades up and become eligible to play in the postseason, which began after the school’s spring semester had ended. But he wasn’t simply handed a position. He had to earn his spot, edging teammates Ryan Cochran and Duke Butler IV in qualifying for the team’s fifth and final spot for regionals. He shot 72-74-74 at Yale Golf Club to tie for 41st.
“It feels good to be back in competition,” said Vargas. “I’m really looking forward to playing and doing whatever I can to help the team. Everyone did a great job this spring, and hopefully I can contribute here at the end. I feel my game is in good shape. Now I just have to get out here and get after it.”
There seem to be few, if any, hard feelings from his coach and teammates.
“James did a good job in school and got back to where he needs to be,” Alexander said. “He went through qualifying and earned his spot. He hasn’t played competitively in a while, but he’s been working hard on his game.”
Added senior Camilo Villegas: “It’s good to have James back in the lineup. He’s a very talented player and should be an added plus for us.”
Frankly, the Gators hardly missed a beat without Vargas. And no one has stepped up more than Villegas and sophomore Matt Every.
In their 11 regular-season starts, each won twice – Every at the Gary Koch and Chris Schenkel/E-Z Go and Villegas at the UNLV/Southern Highlands and Atlanta Intercollegiate. The Atlanta triumph was Villegas’ eighth career victory, a school record, and he was named SEC Player of the Year for the second time.
“Camilo is our team captain and has really matured as a leader,” Alexander said. “He leads by example every day. He’s a hard worker, and I think the other guys use him as a role model to get better.”
Villegas, a native of Colombia, has seven top 5s overall, and Every has five top 5s and seven top 10s.
The big stat, though, is scoring average.
Villegas, a three-time All-American, including a first-team selection his freshman and sophomore seasons, improved 1.43 strokes per round from 2003 to this season (72.15 to 70.72), while Every is an 2.84 shots better (73.65 to 70.81). Combined, that’s better than a four-stroke improvement per round, or more than 12 shots over a 54-hole tournament.
The strong play of Every, from Daytona Beach, Fla., has been a huge bonus for the Gators, especially after he struggled for much of his freshman season.
“Matt has been a real pleasant surprise, but not a big surprise,” Alexander said. “Like Camilo, he started playing well last season in April and was our low guy at last year’s NCAA (tied for 12th while leading Florida to a fourth-place tie). He also had a very good summer so I was expecting some good things from him.”
But the Gators are hardly a two-man show. In Vargas’ absence, freshman Jessie Mudd (SEC Co-Freshman of the Year), sophomores Brett Stegmaier and Cochran, and junior Butler made significant contributions.
“Without a doubt they are the best team in the country,” said Clemson coach Larry Penley. “They have two great players at the top in Villegas and Every and are solid from 3-5. And now when you throw in Vargas, it makes them even stronger. I think for us, or any team, to beat them, we’re going to have to play our absolute best, and even then will probably need them to slip up a little. This is by far the best Florida team I’ve seen in a long time, including the 2001 team.”
Let the Gator hunt begin.