2004: Pacers finally lead horse in Division II

By Rex Hoggard

Earlier this year, University of South Carolina-Aiken coach Michael Carlisle received an encouraging note. The sender was a close friend and colleague. The message was curt and clear: It’s your turn.

“(Clemson coach Larry Penley) sent me a note this year just before the NCAA Championships and said, ‘Let’s see how it’ll feel to win (a national championship) at the same time,’” Carlisle recalled.

It was a kind gesture from a former Clemson teammate and respected colleague, yet heading into NCAA Division II postseason play, the Pacers were without a victory all season. And after 14 years at the USC-Aiken helm, Carlisle had grown weary of expectations.

Few understood Carlisle’s predicament like Penley, who ended his own 0-for-18 slump with the Tigers’ first NCAA victory in 2003.

At least twice before, Carlisle’s Pacers came close (1995, ’96), but each time the soft-spoken coach was left holding runner-up honors.

“We had some years when we had the best team in the country and we just didn’t win,” Carlisle said. “Sometimes it just works out that way.”

There is, however, something to be said for timing.

The final line on the Pacers will show they won just twice in 2003-04. But they won the only two tournaments that really mattered – the Southeast Regional and NCAA Division II Championship.

Under the season’s most intense pressure, and at the year’s most challenging venues, USC-Aiken delivered. First at the regional, where the Pacers lapped the field by eight strokes.

“We had the feeling all season it was our time,” said Dane Burkhart, a junior who grew up not far from the Aiken campus. “We stayed upbeat all season and felt we had the most solid five players in the country.”

At NCAAs, the Pacers improved each round (304-297-292-298) on a windswept Victoria Hills layout in DeLand, Fla. They also withstood a final-round haymaker from D-II heavyweight J.J. Jakovac and top-ranked Chico State.

Jakovac took the individual title, his second in three years, but the Wildcats finished second, nine strokes back thanks to steady performances from all five Aiken players.

Making the team’s unpredictable finale even more storybook was a leader-by-committee makeup that helped unify a young squad (two freshman, five sophomores and one senior).

The Pacers’ top four players finished the season with stroke averages that were separated by less than a half shot and the team had six different low scorers in 15 events.

Only twice in 2003-04 did a Pacer take individual honors – Burkhart at the Outback Steakhouse Intercollegiate and AASU/Southbridge Invitational in February. Instead of individual fireworks, the team relied on solid, across-the-board finishes at regionals and NCAAs.

“All five played about the same . . . I really couldn’t point to any one player who was the leader,” said Carlisle, who is entering his 15th season as the Pacers’ coach.

The Pacers may have been leaderless in 2003-04 but the team did find a steadying force late in the season in Scott Brown. Despite sitting out the fall season with academic troubles, Brown was the team’s top finisher in four tournaments, including regionals (second) and NCAAs (T-4).

“We were finishing second all year, and with the team we had we knew we could (win NCAAs),” said Brown. “We lost tournaments by just a few shots, so we weren’t worried.”

The Pacers will have a similar dynamic this season.

The team lost only one player to graduation (Bryan Sangid). James McGhee, the Pacers’ second-leading scorer last season, likely will return to Scotland and not play his junior season.

Replacing them in the lineup will be Tyler Rolley, one of the nation’s top junior college players at Black Hawk College in Moline, Ill., who had four individual victories last season.

The team also will add newcomers Steve Holtgrieve (son of Champions Tour player Jim Holtgrieve), Chris McAlister and junior standout James Browning to a core that includes Brown, Burkhart and Clint Smith, who led the team with a 74.44 stroke average last season.

“We could be better than we were last year,” said Brown.

That means another year of high expectations for the Pacers, who will be preseason favorites when play begins next month.

Chico State lost Jakovac to graduation, and the Wildcats probably will battle for Golden State honors with CSU-Stanislaus, which quietly has finished in the top 3 at NCAAs the last three years.

Perennial powers Rollins (Fla.) College and Florida Southern still are rebuilding after substandard seasons, and Francis Marion (S.C.), the 2003 national champions, failed to advance to last year’s championship.

After 14 years of waiting, Carlisle has an entire season to enjoy the view from the top. He may even take the time to pen a couple of encouraging notes of his own.

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