MILTON, Ga. — You had California from the Pac-12, Alabama from the SEC and Texas from the Big 12. An impressive threesome. All won their conference titles this season.
Entering this week’s NCAA Championship finals at Capital City Club’s Crabapple course, they had combined for 23 tournament titles. Cal and ‘Bama were Nos. 1 and 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings and the top two seeds in the 30-team starting field. Texas was ranked third and listed as the No. 4 seed.
They were considered by most as the cream of the crop — college golf’s Big 3 — in the 2012-13 season and drew the bulk of attention all year.
Then there’s Illinois. Not many people would place the Fighting Illini in the same class with this threesome. Maybe they don’t belong among this group (just don’t tell them that). But one thing I know, what coach Mike Small and his teams have done over the last half dozen years has been truly remarkable.
The Illini have shown that a northern, Midwestern program can compete against the Western and Southern big guns and be an intregal part of college golf’s power players.
“This program has come a long ways over the years and this year certainly showed just how far,” said Small, in his 13th year at the Illinois coach. “Maybe its because we’re a northern school and don’t have some of the long and rich traditions like other programs, but I think we have built a lot of respect over the years and if you come here you can compete for a national championship at Illinois.”
Small’s teams have qualified for the NCAA finals the last six years and made it to the match-play portion of the championship in two of the last three. The program also boasts the individual NCAA champion in two of those years — Scott Langley in 2010 and Thomas Pieters in 2012.
Even though the Fighting Illini didn’t gather much respect going into this year’s NCAA postseason, they experienced maybe their best year in school history.
After winning its fifth consecutive Big 10 title, Illinois could get no better than the No. 6 seed in the 14-team Fayetteville regional and came into the finals No. 26 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings and as the No. 15 seed.
Junior Thomas Pieters of Belgium, who is turning pro and skipping his senior season, is the team’s top player, being No. 46 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings. Next best is freshman Thomas Detry at 130.
“Our individual rankings don’t really do our guys justice because we don’t play the type of schedule these other guys do,” Small said. “But our guys are better than our rankings and I think they showed that (in postseason).
In a season where they won six tournaments, the Illini certainly saved the best for last. After claiming the Big 10 title, they went on to win the program’s first region championship.
Then it was on to the NCAA finals, where Small and his program had the best week in the school’s golf history. The Illini finished fifth in the 54-hole stroke-play portion of the championship to move on to the Elite 8 for match play.
All the Illini did there was become the event’s giant slayers — at least for two days. First Illinois defeated defending champion Texas, 3-2, and then in maybe the match of the tournament, the Illini downed the mighty Cal Bears 3-2 in the semifinals.
The dream season came to an end Sunday when Alabama notched a 4-1 decision, giving the Tide it’s first NCAA golf title.
Still, Illinois’ second-place finish was the program’s best, topping the fourth place showing in 1941.
“This whole week just wears you out,” Small said, “especially in match play and especially when you look at who we played in each match. There’s the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC champions. And we’re the Big 10 champions so we fit.
“There is no room for error against any of those teams so we had to play three days without error. And for the most part we did. Our hats off to Alabama. They played great and made all the shots when they had to. Still, for us to be in that final match, especially with such a young team (two freshmen, and sophomores and a junior), shows we are doing the right things at Illinois. This wasn’t a pipe dream at all and I think we proved that.”
You certainly did, coach. You did it this season and have been doing it for years now. In fact, I’d say every coach in the Big 10 as well as the conference itself owes you and your team a big steak dinner. As the lone Big 10 representative in the NCAA finals, you all did the league proud.
It’s time for the college golf world to stop sweeping Illinois under a rug and treating it as no more than an afterthought. It’s time to start showing Small’s program some love and respect.
Not only has the Fighting Illini earned it, they deserve it.