Notebook: Breaking new ground in Long Beach

Kevin Lim of Long Beach State

Kevin Lim of Long Beach State

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A look ahead...

What: 66th annual Western Intercollegiate

When: Saturday-Sunday, April 14-15

Where: Pasatiempo Golf Club, Santa Cruz, Calif.

Why it's important: No. 1-ranked Texas and five other top-15 teams will be looking to build some momentum for the postseason on this classic Alister MacKenzie design. Four of the Pac-12 Conference's top teams – all in the top 10 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings – will be tuning up in their last event before the Pac-12 Championships on April 27-29: No. 3 USC, No. 5 California, No. 7 Oregon and No. 8 Stanford. Also in the field is No. 13 San Diego State.

When the fall season ended, Long Beach State was not among the top 50 teams in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings.

That was hardly any big surprise.

After all, since these rankings began in the 1999-2000 season, the 49ers never have finished within the top 50. Their best, in fact, was No. 72 in the rankings’ inaugural season.

Over the past seven seasons, Long Beach State has finished in the top 100 only once, at No. 85 in 2005-06.

Over the past four years, however, the 49ers have shown slow, steady improvement under the guidance of three coaches: Bill Poutre, who helped lay the groundwork for the current program before leaving after the 2010-11 season and becoming assistant coach at Boston College; Ryan Ressa, who took the reins in the fall of 2011 before resigning to take a position with TaylorMade-Adidas Golf last fall; and Mickey Yokoi, who was named head coach in December after 14 years with the men’s and women’s programs at Arizona State.

Now, in what many might consider a surprise, the 49ers are ranked among the top 50 – actually, make it the top 40 – holding down the No. 37 spot.

“It’s not me at all,” Yokoi said about the team’s success this season. “It’s these players. They’ve all been playing well. They’re doing the right things to be successful. We haven’t played against that many (highly) ranked teams, but they’ve done extremely well against the competition they have faced. They’re really doing an excellent job.”

After opening the fall by finishing 16th in the 16-team field at The Prestige, the 49ers haven’t looked back.

They tied for first at the Bill Cullen Invitational, and were eighth in a strong field at the Gifford Collegiate to close out the fall.

But it has been the spring season under Yokoi that has really sent the 49ers climbing up the rankings, starting with a victory in February at the Folino Invitational.

After a sixth place at the Fresno State/Lexus Classic, Long Beach State tied Pac-12 power Washington for first place at Bandon Dunes; finished second – just two shots back – to No. 7 and host team Oregon at the Duck Invitational; and, earlier this month, won at the Ogio-Santa Barbara Invitational.

“After every tournament, every round, we always look back and see where we could have saved a shot or two,” Yokoi said. “We’re always talking about how to eliminate mistakes. I think that has been a big factor for us, using better course management.

“What you always try to do in every tournament is get into the final grouping in the last round, and we’ve been able to do that a number of times. That’s when you feel the pressure; that’s when the fun begins.”

Leading the 49ers have been seniors Kevin Lim and Kevin Roy. Lim has four top 5s, including a second at Bandon Dunes.

Roy, an honorable-mention All-Big West Conference selection last season, has three top 10s and was 3-0-0 at the Del Walker Match Play.

“He can hit a golf ball as well as anyone out there right now,” Yokoi said of Roy. “He struggles with his putting at times. But I really believe once he gets his putting squared away, he has the potential to be on (the PGA) Tour. He’s that good.”

Juniors Philip Chian, with three top 20s, and Raymond Ho, with a pair of top 10s, also have made solid contributions.

Then there’s Xander Schauffele. The freshman has stepped in and made a big impact, posting six top 20s, including five top 10s and his first college victory, at Santa Barbara.

“When I came here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Yokoi said. “But these guys have really impressed me. It’s been amazing just watching them play and improve. They are a great group.”

For the 49ers, like all the teams in the country, it’s getting to be crunch time, when postseason thoughts begin.

After closing out the regular season April 23-24 at the Anteater Invitational, Long Beach State will play the Big West Conference Championship at La Quinta Resort, where a victory would make it an automatic qualifier for NCAA regionals.

“When I came in here, I had one main goal: get to regionals,” Yokoi said. “If you get to regionals, it’s a whole new game. You start even with everybody, and you know anything can happen if you play well.”

Yokoi certainly is familiar with what it takes to be successful from his days at Arizona State.

He served as associate head coach of the men’s program for a number of years, helping the Sun Devils to five Pac-10 titles and four regional championships.

“In my 14 years of coaching, I have never missed a regional,” Yokoi said.

And don’t expect him to miss one now, even if the 49ers don’t win their first Big West title. With their current national ranking and 66-28 won-lost record against Division I teams, they still should be a lock for their first NCAA postseason appearance since 2004.

• • •

WINNING WILDCATS: Talk about a much-needed victory, that would be the one this week by Kansas State at the Wyoming Cowboy Classic.

Ranked No. 114 going into the event, KSU stood below the required .500 record for postseason play (52-63). But the Wildcats’ two-shot triumph over Colorado in the 23-team field that included the likes of San Diego, Texas Tech, Arizona, Arizona State and Wichita State moved KSU to 74-63 and kept its hopes alive for a vastly improved ranking and NCAA regional berth.

• • •

SUN DEVILS’ LAST HOPE: On the flipside, it looks as if Arizona State faces an almost-impossible route into the postseason in its first year under Tim Mickelson, who knew he was facing a rebuilding job. The Sun Devils took a 54-71 record into the Cowboy Classic. If they had finished third or better, it would have put them above .500. However, a 16th place in Wyoming produced the knockout blow to ASU’s break-even hopes.

The only hope now for the Sun Devils to reach regionals is to win the Pac-12 Conference Championship – hardly an easy task when one considers that six Pac-12 teams are ranked among the top 12 in the country.

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