No. 7: Illinois men, Virginia women
College golf is just a few short weeks away. To get you ready, Asher Wildman is breaking down the top 60 men's and women's teams from last year's Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. Today, it's No. 7 on the board with the Illinois men and Virginia women.
2010-11 final ranking: 7
Coach: Mike Small (12th year)
Top returnees: Luke Guthrie, Thomas Pieters, Mason Jacobs
Top newcomers: Freshmen Alex Burge of Bloomington, Ill., freshman Brian Campbell of Irvine, Calif.
Projected starting 5: Luke Guthrie (Sr.), Thomas Pieters (So.), Mason Jacobs (Jr.), Nos. 4 and 5 spots TBA
Key losses: Scott Langley, Chris DeForest
Key fall tournament: Olympia Fields
2010-11 recap: The past few seasons, one team from the Big Ten Conference has squashed the stereotype that Midwestern schools can’t be competitive in college golf: Illinois. Last year, the Fighting Illini won ther third consecutive Big Ten Championship and also notched four other victories (Wolf Run Intercollegiate, D.A. Weibring Intercollegiate, Louisiana Classics Invite, Kepler Invitational).
After a great regular season, Illinois was runner-up at the NCAA Indiana Regional, then advanced to the Elite Eight match-play portion at the NCAA Championship. The Illini fell to eventual national runner-up Georgia in the quarterfinals.
“We made it to match play, which is every coach’s goal at the beginning of the year,” coach Mike Small said. “It was a good year, and shows how our program has evolved over the years.”
Player to watch: Thomas Pieters. Said Small: “He has played well this summer and is a name no one really knows about after playing in the shadows of the other guys before him. He’s very fundamentally sound and is continuously learning the game. Now is the time he is becoming a player.”
2011-12 preview: Illinois will start the year with its eyes on a fourth consecutive Big Ten crown, as well as the goal of making it back to match play. This year, though, will be a challenge for Small. “If we’re not a total team that’s six to seven deep, then we can struggle,” he said. “There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered, and hopefully we’ll answer a lot of them in the fall.”
The biggest questions come in the middle of the lineup, as 2010 NCAA champion Scott Langley and Chris DeForest have graduated.
Easing the loss, however, is the return of first-team All-American and Big Ten champion Luke Guthrie, who finished last season at No. 9 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings.
“He’s an important factor to this team,” Small said. “As he goes, the team goes, and he will have to play well – and I think he will.” Guthrie needs to have another huge year because the team’s other returnees – Thomas Pieters and Mason Jacobs – played out of the Nos. 4 and 5 spots.
One player to keep an eye on could be redshirt sophomore Jonathan Hauter. Small says Hauter hasn’t played for a couple of seasons but has a solid swing. What has held Hauter back are his approach shots. The Illinois native hits the ball a long way, but needs to improve in the scoring department. If he can take the next step in his game, it will only help Illinois’ chances of extending its Big Ten streak.
Bottom line: Mike Small has built a great program in Champagne, officially putting the Illini on the list of elite teams in college golf. The question this year will be how much Luke Guthrie will have to carry this team. Entering the fall, he doesn’t seem to have too much of a supporting cast. Small has the fall to test different lineup combinations, but this could be a slightly down year for Illinois. Small will have his team back at nationals, but the Illini don’t have the firepower for another Elite Eight appearance.
2010-11 final ranking: 7
Coach: Kim Lewellen (fifth year)
Top returnees: Brittany Altomare, Portland Rosen, Nicole Agnello
Top newcomers: Freshman Briana Mao of Folsom, Calif., freshman Kaira Martin of Paradise Valley, Ariz., freshman Lauren Coughlin of Chesapeake, Va.
Projected starting 5: Brittany Altomare (Jr.), Nicole Agnello (Jr.), Portland Rosen (So.), Elizabeth Brightwell (So.), Kaira Martin (Fr.)
Key losses: Calle Nielson, Joy Kim
Key fall tournament: Fall Preview
2010-11 recap: With all the focus on the Pac-10 powers and all of the attention fellow Atlantic Coast Conference school Duke received for not winning, Virginia quietly was one of the top teams in the country. After a victory at the Golfweek Conference Challenge in the fall, the Cavs posted eight top-5 finishes in their last nine starts.
After coming in third at the NCAA West Regional, Virginia was in the final pairings at the NCAA Championship heading into the final round. The Cavaliers’ fourth-place finish at Traditions Golf Club in Bryan, Texas, was the best showing at nationals in the program’s history.
“We had a very deep team,” coach Kim Lewellen said. “We had several line up changes through out the year, but I think we got it right at nationals.”
Player to watch: Elizabeth Brightwell. Said Lewellen: “She has made huge improvements and played in the NGCA Hooters event, where one day on her own ball she shot 66. She hits the ball extremely long off the tee, and since being here has picked up 25 yards.”
2011-12 preview: Teams like Virginia are slowly narrowing that gap between the top three teams in women’s college golf and everyone else. The Cavaliers are a talented bunch that has quietly climbed the rankings the last few years. Lewellen inherited a top-25 program when she came to Charlottesville, but has turned the Cavs into a legitimate top-10 power. “This team is deep to the point it will be tough to pick certain lineups for different courses,” Lewellen said. “If that’s a recipe I can get right, I’m hoping we do better than last year.”
With all the success the Cavs have had the past few years, this may be Lewellen’s greatest challenge. Junior Brittany Altomare is back after a successful season saw her finish at No. 15 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, but the rest of the lineup is filled with question marks.
For Virginia to be a national contender, it will have to find someone to replace the graduated Calle Nielson. Lewellen thinks junior Nicole Agnello, who finished last season ranked No. 129, has a chance to fill that role. “Nicole has always been a steady player for us,” Lewellen said. “She has played well for us in big tournaments.” If Agnello can continue her steady play, then the Cavs could have that No. 2 player they are looking for. It’s a spot for which sophomore Portland Rosen, who ranked No. 73 as a freshman, will compete as well.
Bottom line: Virginia has been strong the past few seasons, but this year’s squad may take a step back. The roster has some holes to fill, and it will take Lewellen some experimentation to determine who her starting five will be come the postseason. Expect several different lineups during the fall and maybe part of the spring, too. The Cavs still are going to be good, but another top-10 appearance would be a surprise.