Green Raiders? At MTSU, it’s color of hope

Middle Tennessee's Hunter Green (left) talks with assistant coach Kent Bulle.

Middle Tennessee's Hunter Green (left) talks with assistant coach Kent Bulle.

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DADE CITY, Fla. – This spring, the Blue Raiders have a new accent color: green.

The green ribbons adorning Middle Tennessee State players’ bags and hats pay tribute to a program benefactor. Jeff Hendrix, a contractor who built MTSU’s practice facility, suffers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The color green symbolizes awareness of the disease, much as pink does breast cancer.

And on the course this weekend at the USF Invitational, the Blue Raiders have another Green worth heralding.

Hunter Green shot his second consecutive 5-under 67 at Lake Jovita Resort’s South Course to lead the Blue Raiders to a 20-shot lead entering Sunday’s final round.

Tee times have been moved up to 7:30 a.m. and the format switched to a shotgun start in anticipation of storms in central Florida.

While it’s nothing new to have MTSU, winners of two of the past three titles at USF’s annual spring event, setting the pace, the Blue Raiders’ individual leader is somewhat of a surprise.

Green, a junior from Dayton, Tenn., plays in the increasingly large shadow of MTSU senior Jason Millard. Green hit 33 of 36 greens in regulation through two rounds at Lake Jovita, with only one bogey each day, to race to a 10-under 134.

His key: Fairways, greens and birdies on the par 5s, where he is 8 under for eight holes.

“It makes it easy,’’ he said. “I’ve got to just keep doing the same thing: hitting greens.’’

If so, he’ll be tough to catch. Daniel Mazziotta of Florida Gulf Coast (67–136) is two shots back, followed by Arkansas State’s Chris Pledger (69–137).

MTSU, with an 11-under 277 score Saturday, pulled further away from Sun Belt Conference rival North Texas (291–571). Surprising Villanova (290), No. 186 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, continues to hold on to third place at 573.

Florida State, which has a 32-50-1 head-to-head record this year, gave life to its flagging hopes for the postseason with a 6-under 278 to climb eight spots, into a tie for fourth with Arkansas State (287) at 574. Brooks Koepka (67) and Drew Kittleson (68) led the Seminoles.

If FSU were to finish second or better, it would improve to .500 and be back on track entering its home invitational next week in Tallahassee to contend for the postseason.

MTSU, ranked No. 58, has been an emerging national contender in Whit Turnbow’s four seasons as head coach in Murfreesboro. The Blue Raiders counted four scores under par each day and have the talent to go deep into the postseason.

“The way we’re playing right now,” said Millard, whose closing 63 set a school record in winning at Mobile Bay last week, “we can play with almost anyone.”

Turnbow says his team is “playing with swagger,’’ but cautioned that tests await.

“It’s easy when things are going well.”

•••

On the move: Villanova’s 283-290 score showed even more resilience than might be expected of a team ranked No. 186. The Wildcats did it without their top player.

Brendan Kelly, ‘Nova’s No. 1 man, pulled an oblique muscle last week at the Charleston Shootout. He made the trip to Florida but could do nothing more strenuous than assist first-year coach James Wilkes with some of the younger Wildcats. Without Wilkes in the lineup, Villanova had three players shoot par or better: Brian Colbert (70-68–138) for fourth place, first-round co-leader Conor Casey (67-76–143) and Colin List (71-73–144).

“I told them that they all had to step up a spot,” Wilkes said, “and they responded. It was fun to watch.”

Double foul: As if Austin Peay’s first-round 315, in 20th place in the 21-team field, weren’t bad enough, the Governors’ frustrations continued off the golf course.

Searching for a spot to watch APSU’s semifinal basketball game in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, Govs coach Kirk Kayden found a nearby restaurant. Peay got to see the opener of the OVC semifinal on ESPNU, but when it came time for the Govs’ tipoff against Morehead State, the proprietor informed the team – most of whom paint themselves in the school’s red-and-white motif for home games – that it was closing time.

After a futile search for another spot to watch the game, the Govs settled for using the Lake Jovita wireless connection to monitor a feed of the radio broadcast from Nashville.

In keeping with the theme of the day, Peay lost.

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