In his first season at California State-Chico, coach Keith Thomas led the Wildcats to a pair of team titles and within 15 shots of advancing to the NCAA Division II Men’s Championship for the first time in 36 years.
Not bad for a 30-year-old newcomer who had no interest in coaching college golf until school officials convinced him to give it a try.
“Being a college coach never even dawned on me until it fell into my lap,” said Thomas, a Chico State graduate and PGA Class A teaching professional who was working at a local course last year when school officials came calling.
Now comes the hard part. Thomas must find a way to improve on his impressive first-year campaign. Not an easy task for any coach, but what makes a potential sophomore slump unlikely is the diverse and talented cast Thomas has assembled.
Anchoring the Wildcats will be junior J.J. Jakovac, the reigning Division II individual champion who followed his three-shot triumph at Mission Inn Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., with an equally impressive summer.
Jakovac, who won six individual titles last year and was a first-team All-American, made it to the field of 32 at the U.S. Amateur Public Links and advanced to the semifinals of the Northern California Amateur Aug. 15 at Spyglass Hill.
“I have some high individual goals. I want to win every tournament I play,” said Jakovac, the 2002 California College Athletic Association Athlete of the Year. “But I’ve had a good summer and I’m playing well right now, so I’m looking forward to continuing the same once college gets going.”
The 20-year-old capped his summer by reaching the second round of match play at the U.S. Amateur at Oakland Hills.
Jakovac’s success has been a recruiting boon for the Wildcats.
“The correspondence with potential student-athletes has tripled since J.J. won nationals,” Thomas said. “I could be full-time just answering e-mails and calls from recruits.”
A pair of top recruits likely will join Jakovac this fall. Brian Van Heel, a top junior from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who won the CIF/Southern California Golf Association Championship in June, and Jonathon Sapper are both expected to compete for starting spots.
Thomas expects seniors Andy Barnum and Brian Benedictson to round out his lineup when the fall season begins this month at the Western Washington Invitational.
In case Thomas didn’t have enough motivation, the Wildcats will play host to the 2003 NCAA Division II Championship. The last time CSU-Chico hosted the event was in 1966, when the Wildcats won the national title.
“It will be a huge motivator,” Thomas said. “Who wants to host a national championship and not play in it?”
NCAA Division III
Wisconsin-Eau Claire always is lurking around the top five in Division III. The Blugolds, who won the NCAA Men’s Division III Championship in 2001, should make a strong showing again in 2003 with their top five players returning, including Mark Christianson, an All-American last year.
Eau Claire coach Todd Oehrlien also is pleased to have junior Ryan Quinn back in the lineup. Quinn, who finished fourth at the national tournament in 2001, took last fall off to train for the U.S. Olympic curling team. Although he came up short at Olympic qualifying, Quinn made a successful return to golf, capturing his second Wisconsin State Amateur title.
“I have a great recruiting class, and we didn’t lose anybody from last year,” Oehrlien said. “This is potentially as good a team as I’ve ever had, but potential doesn’t earn you anything.”
Eau Claire will have its hands full with a stacked Methodist (N.C.) College squad.
The Monarchs had two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior competing at nationals last year, and now that they have some experience, they will look to improve upon last season’s third-place showing.
On the women’s side, Methodist will try to win its sixth consecutive national championship under the new leadership of Vici Pate, a former instructor at the Academy of Golf at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. With two seniors and four juniors on her roster, Pate will guide a seasoned team into 2002-03.
Mary Hardin Baylor (Texas) has three players returning from last year’s team that finished runner-up to Methodist at the NCAA Division III Women’s Championship, and the Crusaders should be contenders again this year when the championship is held at Fairway Oaks Country Club in Abilene, Texas.
Once again, the Oklahoma City University men’s squad appears to be the team to beat. With a talented group of returnees, including 2002 NAIA individual champion Tyrone van Aswegen, the Stars will be favored to win their third consecutive NAIA championship. The Oklahoma City women’s squad also will be strong. However, watch for a return to form by the University of British Columbia.
The Thunderbirds have been the No. 1-ranked NAIA women’s team two years running, although they finished 14th at the 2002 NAIA Championship after winning the title in 2001.
– Beth Ann Baldry,
Rex Hoggard and Mike Mazur