The spring season is officially under way, and some things never change. Arizona continues to struggle; the Wildcats finished behind their jayvee team at their own tournament! Oklahoma State won in Hawaii, and Florida, led by senior Bank Vongvanij, won in Jacksonville.
Here are my picks as we now start to count down to the postseason:
NCAA champion: Blayne Barber. Peter Uihlein seems to be the unanimous pick. After all, it will be on his home course at Karsten Creek. However, I’ll offer up another name that I think can compete with Uihlein on his home course. After a strong summer and fall, Barber is getting a serious look at potentially donning the red, white, and blue for Team USA’s Walker Cup this summer. The redshirt sophomore is a hard worker and has committed not only to mastering his game but being a key contributor for the recent success of Auburn. Winning a title at Karsten Creek over a team of Cowboys will be tough, but Barber has the game to make a run.
NCAA team champion: Georgia. The safe pick is Oklahoma State, but I think the only team that can go one through five for match-play purposes is Georgia. The Cowboys will have Peter Uihlein, Kevin Tway, Morgan Hoffmann, Talor Gooch and a question at No. 5. When UGA comes to play, it will be set with Russell Henley, Hudson Swafford, Harris English, T.J. Mitchell and a question at No. 5, as well. I already can see the matches going 2-2, with it all coming down to a battle of No. 5 guys. It’s a coin flip, but my quarter had a Bulldog on it when it landed.
Surprise team of the year: Notre Dame. I have been tough on the Irish in the past, but there is no denying what they now are accomplishing. In the fall, the Irish had four runners-up finishes and a win, which has Notre Dame looking like the team to beat in the Big East this year. Not only is Notre Dame back in the top 30, but it is playing with enough confidence – and most importantly, game – to possibly earn its way to Karsten Creek this spring.
Coach of the year: North Texas’ Brad Stracke. The former Florida assistant is quickly building a solid program in the Lone Star State. A few years ago, Lamar was the upstart school from Texas. This year, it looks like the Mean Green of UNT. What Stracke has done in only a couple of years is remarkable. UNT will have one chance to prove to the country that it is the best team in the state, but we will have to wait until postseason time to see if it is up to the challenge.
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NCAA individual champion: Megan McChrystal. When top-ranked McChrystal is in the lineup for LSU, the Tigers can win any event. But when she’s not there, the Bayou Bengals struggle. When the team travels to College Station, Texas, for the NCAA Championship, McChrystal already knows the most important thing: that she can win there. At the Fall Preview, McChrystal won by two strokes and finished the tournament at 10 under par. There is no doubt this Bayou Bengal can go low on the course, but can she rise to the occasion for a national title? I think she can.
NCAA team champion: UCLA. Mic Potter’s Alabama squad closed out the fall ranked No. 1, but the question for the Tide has always been, Can they play like this at NCAAs? Alabama flirted for a bit last year at Landfall, but started to fade down the stretch. UCLA has been close in recent years, and I am starting to question if I should take the Bruins. However, you can’t dispute the amount of talent they have, and the fact that they have been in contention for the past couple of years at NCAAs. UCLA has seen Southern Cal and Arizona State win in recent years, but now it’s the Bruins’ turn to be the queens of the Pac-10 once again.
Surprise team of the year: Florida International Could the Golden Panthers really be the best team in Florida? They closed out the fall ranked 35th, which was only nine spots behind Florida. FIU closed out the fall with a head-to-head record of 51-7, which included two wins and two other top-5 finishes. Joe Vogel has done an outstanding job at FIU, and I really believe that when the final rankings come out this summer, the Golden Panthers will be the highest-ranked team in the Sunshine State.
Coach of the year: Joe Vogel. His team has seemed to come out of nowhere and has yet to slow. This spring, there will be a lot of pressure on Vogel to keep the momentum going, but the team he recruited is quite talented. If FIU finished in the top 25, how can you not make a case for him to be coach of the year? Remember, he doesn’t coach at Florida, Florida State or Miami. No, he coaches Florida International University.