Illinois’ dream season continued. California’s came to a heartbreaking, tear-filled end.
Both happened Saturday after the Fighting Illini gutted out a 3-and-2 victory over the Bears in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship at the Capital City Golf Club’s Crabapple course.
With each team having two points on the board, the match came down to the clash of college golf titans – Cal’s Max Homa, the Pac-12 champion who two days earlier won the NCAA individual crown, and Illinois’ Thomas Pieters, the reigning Big 10 champion and 2012 NCAA individual winner.
It will rank as one of the most exciting and intense matches since this format was introduced in 2009, spilling over two extra holes. On the 20th hole, the par-4 second, Pieters two-putted from 12 feet for par while Homa made bogey, three-putting from some 50 feet and lipping out his 10-foot comebacker for par.
“Thomas Pieters is one tough competitor and he showed it today,” said Illinois coach Mike Small, completing his 13th season at the Illini helm. “What a day this has been, for our team, for our program.
“In (match play) format there is such a small margin for error. Our guys are not afraid and hung in there all day. It’s been an emotional roller coaster all week and the good news is we have one more day of it.”
Come Sunday afternoon, one team will leave Crabapple with its first NCAA golf title as Illinois takes on Alabama, a 3-0-2 winner over host Georgia Tech in its semifinal match. The Crimson Tide finished runner-up to Texas at last year’s NCAA Championship.
Still, Small’s feelings contained some mixed emotions.
“I’m excited and happy for our guys and the competitive side of me is really fired up,” said Small, a three-time winner of the PGA of America’s National Club Professional Championship. “But the human side of me feels for Cal. They had such a great year. I mean I don’t think college golf has seen a team like Cal this season. All five of their guys rank in the top 25 and I’m not sure that has ever happened. They won 11 times and didn’t dodge anybody. The human being in me knows they are having a tough time right now.”
That they were. As Cal coach Steve Desimone did his best in talking with the media just off the second green, each member of his team made a slow walk back to the clubhouse, tears in each of their eyes.
“We have 11 wins this season and have only four losses on our head-to-head won-loss record,” Desimone said. “So we’ve obviously had a lot of great days. Unfortunately, this was not one of them. Right now it’s just hard to believe it’s over. But I’m just so proud of this group and what they’ve accomplished this year. They’re just a special bunch of kids and I can’t say enough about them.”
Freshman Charlie Danielson gave Illinois its first point when he defeated Joel Statler, 3 and 2. Danielson was 3 up after five holes, but Stalter came back and won Nos. 6 and 8. Danielson then won the ninth, 12th and 14th holes to go 4 up. After Stalter kept the match going with a chip-in birdie at the par-3 15th, it came to an end when the two halved No. 16.
Michael Weaver evened the score for Cal, making par on the 18th hole for a 1-up victory over Thomas Detry. Neither player held more than a 1-up lead at any point.
The Bears went on top a short time later when Brandon Hagy notched a 4-and-3 victory over Alex Burge, the Illini’s top performer the day before. Hagy won hole Nos. 3, 6, 7 and 8 to go 4 up and the best Burge could do the rest of the way was cut into the margin by one.
Then Brian Campbell got Illinois into a 2-2 tie when he defeated Michael Kim, 2 and 1. They were all square at the turn. Campbell won the 11th hole and chipped in for birdie at No. 15 to go 2 up. Kim came right back and won No. 16, but Campbell closed the match out with a birdie at No. 17.
That set the stage for the thrilling, extra-hole showdown between Homa and Pieters, a junior but playing in his final college event after announcing earlier this spring he would turn pro after the college season.
“I can’t hide my disappointment. Right now this really hurts,” Desimone said. “But my hats off to Illinois. They played well and they made the putts when they had to.”
Said Small: “What we’ve done this week, what we’ve done over the years, shows the stability we have built into this program. Some teams play well one, two, three years, then might have a few off years. This is our sixth straight trip (to NCAA finals), and second time in three years to make match play. We’ve won five consecutive Big 10 titles and our first regional title this year so it’s not like we’re some flash in the pan.”
As Texas coach John Fields described Illinois after the defending NCAA champs lost in the quarterfinal round, “(Illinois) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The Fighting Illini have certainly been that this week at the NCAA Championship. And now they’re hoping that costume has one more day of magic left.