Believe it or not, the start of another college golf season is just a few short weeks away. To get you ready, Asher Wildman will break down the top 60 teams for both the men and women. Today, it’s No. 49 on the board with the Missouri men and UNLV women.
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2010-11 final ranking: 49
Coach: Mark Leroux (eighth year)
Top returnees: Jace Long, Stuart Ballingall
Top newcomers: Freshman Ryan Zech of Carney, Mo., freshman Wilson Sundvold of Columbia, Mo
Projected starting 5: Jace Long (Jr.), Stuart Ballingall (Jr.), Emilio Cuartero (So.), Nick Wilson (Sr.), Hunter Kraus (So.)
Key losses: Will Harrold
Key fall tournament: Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate at The Ridges
2010-11 recap: Overall, Missouri had a solid season, including a four-tournament winning streak to start the spring. The Tigers won the Snowman Getaway and followed that up with three more victories at the Jackrabbit Invitational, UALR/First Tee Classic and Mizzou Intercollegiate.
After the strong spring, Missouri earned an invite to NCAA regionals, where they finished sixth, missing out on a trip to the NCAA Championship by three shots.
“I think it panned out that we were who everybody thought we were,” coach Mark Leroux said. “I thought we were about the 40th-best team in the regionals, and sure enough we finished sixth.”
Player to watch: Ryan Zech. “He should be the next Jace Long,” Leroux said. “He’s a Missouri kid who was the best kid in the state. Generally, he is in play off the tee, and hits a bunch of greens. He putts with a Bulls’-Eye, if you can believe that. He’s probably the only kid that putts with a Bulls’-Eye putter, and it is really old. It might be 35 to 40 years old.”
2011-12 preview: Missouri enters this fall with something they may not be too used to: expectations. After just missing a chance to play at nationals last season, the Tigers look to improve upon their ranking with one of the game’s biggest hidden gems.
Junior Jace Long will enter the season as a darkhorse in the player of the year race nationally. “I think he’s really close to being one of those top 10 kids,” Leroux said. “If he can get that 6-foot putt in with more consistency, then he’s a force to be reckoned with.”
Leroux is hopeful that his players continued to work on their short games during the offseason. It’s an above-average short game that he thinks can finally get his team over the hump and into the top 25.
“Got to make putts,” Leroux said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Last season, the Tigers didn’t have many opportunities to face top-50 talent, something that will not be a problem with this year’s tougher schedule.
Missouri knows that Long and fellow junior Stuart Ballingall are anchored atop the lineup. It’s the Nos. 4-5 players that Leroux is hopeful will step up and take the Tigers to the next level.
“Those last two guys you bring to tournaments can be the difference-makers,” Leroux said. “We have depth, but if the bottom of the lineup can play well, then we could be in for a real good year.”
Bottom line: Jace Long is the type of player who can carry a program. But he shouldn’t need to do that. Mizzou has talent and an above-average supporting cast that should make a regionals bid a given. If the Tigers play to their abilities, expect to see them at nationals with a player-of-the-year candidate in Long.
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2010-11 final ranking: 49
Coach: Amy Bush (second year)
Top returnees: Ellis Keenan, Katerina Prorokova
Top newcomers: Freshman Dana Finkelstein of Phoenix, freshman Marguerite Swearingen of Livermore, Calif., freshman Mayko Chwen Wang of Taiwan
Projected starting 5: Ellis Keenan (Jr.), Katerina Prorokova (So.), Dana Finklestein (Fr.), Margeurite Swearingen (Fr.), and Mayko-Chwen Wang (Fr.)
Key losses: Therese Koelbaek and Alejandra Guacaneme
Key fall tournament: UNLV Fall Invitational
2010-11 recap: In her first year as head coach, Amy Bush led UNLV to the NCAA Central Regional, where the team finished a disappointing 21st out of 24 teams. The Rebels had their ups and downs, but struggled to finish atop the leaderboard consistently. The Rebels last year posted only three top-5 finishes. “I learned last year that you have to have patience,” Bush said. “Players started playing well in the spring, but we needed it for an entire year.”
After leading for two rounds at the Mountain West Conference Championship, it appeared UNLV was gaining momentum for the postseason. But the Rebels saw their lead slip away down the stretch and finished as the runner-up to TCU.
Player to watch: Ellis Keenan. “She’s a great putter, and finally has gotten a little bit longer on the driver,” Bush said. “She was 16th in the country at the end of last year in fairways hit, and I expect her to go out and win some events this year.”
2011-12 preview: For the last couple of seasons, UNLV relied on Therese Koelbaek’s production at the top of the lineup. Those days are gone, as the 2010-2011 MWC Player of the Year has graduated. Entering the fall, UNLV has only two returning starters. Three newcomers are coming in and expected to make an instant impact.
“We are going to be a young team,” Bush said. “The recruits have quite a bit of tournament experience and were all being recruited by other big universities.”
Junior Ellis Keenan will be asked to lead a young team that may go through early growing pains. Keenan ended last season as the 400th-ranked individual in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. UNLV’s only other returning starter will be sophomore Katerina Prorokova, and she ended last season at No. 533.
For the Rebels to be successful, the Rebels’ returnees must take a big step forward. “It’s imperative,” Bush said. “They need to know how important their leadership and success is for this program to be great.”
Bottom line: This looks like a rebuilding year for the Rebels. With three freshman in the starting five, it likely will take the newcomers at least a little while to adjust to college golf. Without a top player returning, it’s hard to see UNLV making a climb up the rankings. Expect the Rebels to squeak into regionals and for their season to again end there.