Last season, Georgia Southern made it to college golf’s big show. The Eagles tied for fourth at the NCAA Southeast Regional to advance to the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship at the Honors Course just outside of Chattanooga, Tenn., where they finished 30th in the 30-team field after 54 holes of stroke play.
No doubt, GSU coach Larry Mays and his team set a goal for 2010-11 of returning to the big stage and showing that they do, in fact, truly belong in college golf’s premier championship.
However, early in the season, that looked to be the longest of long shots. To say the least, it had not been much of a productive season for the Eagles heading into this week’s Southern Conference Championship..
It was a season that showed only one top-5 finish, that coming in the fall opener. There would be only two other top 10s, and along the way two 11ths, a 12th and a trio of 13ths.
Finishing its regular season at No. 112 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings and with an overall won-loss record of 34-81, it appeared Georgia Southern’s season would come to an end this week.
But the Eagles did what they had to do when they had to do it. Down by four shots entering the final round on Tuesday in Florence, S.C., they charged past UNC-Greensboro and No. 35 Chattanooga.
Not only did the rally give the Eagles their third Southern Conference title under Mays – and first since 2006 – it also gave them an automatic postseason berth.
Georgia Southern finished at 3-under-par 861, five strokes better than UNCG and six ahead of Chattanooga.
“This was special. I was proud of all of them for hanging in there,” said Mays. “We have had kind of a rough year and have not been able to put together three solid rounds to finish off a tournament. To do that, and to do it the way we did, it’s incredible.”
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Of the five conference championships that were completed by Tuesday, four had winners who were not ranked among the top 50 going in.
No. 57 Notre Dame captured the Big East and No. 120 Missouri-Kansas City won the Summit League.
But maybe the biggest upset so far came at the West Coast Conference Championship.
No. 94 San Francisco entered the eight-team event with a 67-69 overall won-loss record. That meant the Dons would have to finish third or better to even be considered for a regional spot under the NCAA Division I .500 rule.
Not only did they do that, they took the guesswork out of the invitation process.
Leading wire-to-wire, the Dons captured their second league title in three seasons to land the conference’s automatic qualifying position.
What made the victory so impressive is that San Francisco, with a 4-under 860, was the only team to finish under par at San Juan Oaks Golf Club in Hollister, Calif..
In the process, the Dons beat defending WCC champ and No. 38 Pepperdine by six shots and No. 25 San Diego by 11.
It was the Dons’ 10th overall league title since the event began in 1971. They won the first championship, seven more from 1981 to 1990 and then finally regained the crown in 2009.
“It’s nice when a plan all comes together,” said USF coach Rich Yokota. “There were times when we really had to keep the faith, whether it was illness, or knee surgery, or four freshmen navigating their first year in college. It was a challenge, but it looks like it’s finally gelling. It’s nice to have the icing on the end of the regular season, and now we have to keep our focus as we move on to the NCAA regionals.”
A lot more conference championships will be decided over the next few weeks to determine who gets the rest of the 28 conference automatic qualifying spots. You also can bet there will be a few more surprises along the way.