Heppler likes Georgia Tech’s chances

Georgia Tech's James White during the 2010 NCAA Championship.

Georgia Tech's James White during the 2010 NCAA Championship.

Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler was confident he would have a good, solid team for the 2010-11 season.

The thing about it is, he also had that feeling last spring.

“The way we’re playing this year doesn’t surprise me,” said Heppler, now in his 15th season at the Atlanta-based university. “We finished last season very well (winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship, finishing third at regionals and advancing to the elite eight at the NCAA finals, where they lost to eventual national champion Augusta State, 3 and 2, in the opening round of match play). “We had only one senior (Chesson Hadley) and four very talented players (James White, J.T. Griffin, Paul Haley and Kyle Scott) coming back.

“I figured if we could start the fall like we finished last spring, we could really have something going this season,” Heppler said. “These guys are getting better and better, working hard and doing what it takes to be successful. Right now, I think our program is very healthy.”

No doubt about that. The Yellow Jackets hold down the No. 4 spot in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings.

Tech opened the season with a third place at the Carpet Capital. After finishing seventh at the Ping/Golfweek Preview, Heppler’s squad notched a fourth place at the Brickyard.

Then came the big turning point. At the U.S. Collegiate Championship, an event Tech hosts at the Golf Club of Georgia, the Yellow Jackets completely overwhelmed an impressive field, shooting 28-under 836 and capturing the title by 27 strokes over then-No. 1 UCLA.

“Sometimes you have to win one together, all five guys contributing,” Heppler said after the U.S. Collegiate victory. “We did that here, and we did that at the ACC last spring. I think that helped them believe in themselves.”

The Jackets opened this spring with a fourth place at the Amer Ari event on Hawaii’s Big Island, and in their most-recent outing finished second at the Puerto Rico Classic.

While finishing five shots behind winner Alabama in Puerto Rico, Tech placed all five players in the top 25 individually, including four in the top 20.

“Everybody had a good tournament,” Heppler said of Puerto Rico. “It was a good experience for our guys and a real positive trip. When you have four guys inside the top 20, one guy (White) win it and another (Scott) finish third, you can win some tournaments.”

White, a junior, is No. 10 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. In addition to his victory in Puerto Rico, he won the U.S. Collegiate to close out the fall and has three other top-20 showings.

Seniors Griffin and Scott also rank among the top 20. Griffin (No. 12) has finished in the top 15 in each of his seven starts, including a second in Hawaii, and Scott (17) has three top 5s.

Haley (107), a senior, has five top 25s, including three top 10s, and freshman Richy Werenski (123) has three top 25s, including a T-4 at the U.S. Collegiate.

“So far I’m liking what I’m seeing in this team,” Heppler said. “We’ve been in contention in every tournament. We just need to keep getting ourselves in that situation, and hopefully have things go our way at the end.”

The next big test for Heppler’s Jackets comes this weekend when they go up against a high-profile field at Southern Highlands in Las Vegas. Most of the nation’s top teams will be on hand, including top-ranked Oklahoma State, which holds a 2-1 head-to-head record against Tech. Also in the field: No. 3 UCLA, No. 7 Texas, No. 11 Texas A&M and No. 13 Georgia.

Being among the nation’s elite isn’t new for Tech.

Heppler has guided the Yellow Jackets to the NCAA Championship every year since 1998, finishing in the top 8 eight times, including three runner-up showings.

His teams have won or shared seven ACC titles, including the past two. Since 2000, his teams have finished among the top 10 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings nine times and never finished worse than 14th.

The Jackets are back on the right track – just where their coach thought they would be.

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