Notebook: Kangaroos seek another NCAA kick

Will Robson, University of Missouri-Kansas City

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – When you are a Division I program that year in and year out ranks among the top 40 or 50 teams, winning your conference championship is a matter of pride. You want conference bragging rights, at least for a year.

The fact that winning that conference title gives you an automatic invitation into the NCAA postseason is not a major concern. You’re all but guaranteed that invite by your season-long ranking.

But what if you’re not one of those teams?

“Winning the conference championship is a matter of personal pride, no matter how big or how small a school you are,” said Missouri-Kansas City coach J.W. VanDenBorn. “But for teams like us, there’s added pressure because we know it’s probably the only way to get into the NCAA postseason.”

UMKC is in the college golf majority when it comes to traveling that conference-tournament road to NCAA regionals.

“The kids know what’s at stake (at the conference championship),” said VanDenBorn, a 2002 UMKC graduate who became men’s coach in 2003 and was named the school’s director of golf in 2007. “They certainly know it’s the way to get into (postseason), so there is a tremendous amount of pressure. But that’s something you try to thrive on.”

VanDenBorn and his Kangaroos squad finally did thrive on it last season. After three consecutive disappointing second-place finishes, UMKC won its first Summit League Championship to gain the school’s first NCAA appearance and earn VanDenBorn Summit League Coach of the Year honors.

The Kangaroos, who had nine top-5 finishes in 11 starts last season, competed at the NCAA Central Regional at Wolf Run in Zionsville, Ind. It was an entire new stage for the mid-major program, and UMKC finished 13th of 14 teams.

“We have everyone back from that team, and I think the experience has gotten everyone more hungry and more focused to get back there,” VanDenBorn said. “I know they feel they didn’t play the way they are capable of playing, and they are really motivated to get back onto that stage again.

“Getting into the postseason was a big deal for us,” VanDenBorn said. “It validated the things we’ve been doing to keep getting better and keep playing against the best competition we can.”

In the 12 years since the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings began (1999-2000 season), UMKC never has finished within the top 100. But after finishing 200th or lower in four of the rankings’ first seven years, the Kangaroos have stayed within the top 150 in the past five seasons, including a school-best 117th in 2007-08. Last season, they ended at No. 122 and going into the UALR First Tee event earlier this week in Little Rock, Ark., they were 129th.

So far this season, it has been either feast or famine for UMKC. In their first seven starts, the Kangaroos posted four top-3 finishes, including wins at the Kansas Invitational and Washington State Snowman Getaway. However, the other three events produced 10th-place finishes. They finished seventh in Little Rock.

“It’s been up and down, that’s for sure,” VanDenBorn said. “It’s a bit of a head scratcher, and we’re still trying to figure it out. In the fall, we didn’t do a very good job of adjusting to Bermuda greens (at the Golfweek Program Challenge and Squire Creek), and this spring we played solid for (36) holes, but just never seemed to wake up Tuesday morning (for the final round) and never got anything going at Bandon Dunes.”

Junior Korbin Kuehn, who was medalist at the Summit League Championship in 2010 as a freshman, leads this season’s squad. He has three top 20s, including a pair of top 10s and a victory at the Jackrabbit.

Senior Will Robson has three top 20s, but after a strong fall, has struggled a little this spring. “We just need to get him back to playing like he did in the fall, and I think that will happen,” VanDenBorn said.

Sophomore Cole Chelle has three top 10s, and junior Viktor Mikaelsson and sophomore Nathan Hughes each have a pair of top 20s, as does sophomore Nathan Hughes. Sophomore Jack Fiscus, who has two top 10s, and junior Park Ulrich also have contributed. Playing as an individual, Fiscus tied for fourth at UALR.

The Kangaroos certainly will be tested before defending their Summit League title April 23-24. They’ll face some strong competition at Mississippi’s BancorpSouth Intercollegiate and then the Iowa Hawkeye Invitational.

“We knew our spring schedule was pretty loaded and would be a challenge,” VanDenBorn said. “But that’s what we want. I want our guys to be tested and play against the best competition they can.”

For VanDenBorn, that means competing in the postseason and never giving up the dream of reaching college golf’s biggest stage.

“As crazy as it might seem to a lot of people, our big goal is to get to Riviera (site of this year’s NCAA Championship),” he said. “I don’t think as a coach, as a player, you should ever sell yourself short.”

The UMKC Kangaroos as one of the 30 teams in the NCAA finals at Riviera? No doubt that would be the longest of long shots and a story made for Hollywood. But as all who follow college golf know, anything is possible.

• • •

HOPPING ALONG: So now the question that had been burning inside of me: How do teams from a college in Kansas City, Mo., come to be known as the Kangaroos? The last time I was in Kansas City, I sure didn’t see any of the big-footed, long-eared critters hopping around in the woods.

The way VanDenBorn understands it, when the Kansas City Zoo opened years ago, there was a city-wide campaign to bring some kangaroos to the facility.

The late Walt Disney got involved and came up with an animated character, Kasey The Kangaroo. The city adopted it as part of its campaign, and shortly thereafter UMKC adopted it as its mascot.

Oh, and by the way: The zoo did get its kangaroos.

• • •

A LOAD OF BULL: After just about every college tournament, the winning coach and his team pose for a picture, proudly displaying the championship trophy.

Auburn did that earlier this week after capturing the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate title in Awendaw, S.C.. Nothing unusual about that.

In this case, however, it went beyond the traditional team photo.

Auburn coach Nick Clinard and each member of his team took turns holding the team trophy and posing for photos on the back of a bull – which was very big and very much alive.

You can bet those photos will go into some albums and will probably appear in Auburn’s golf media guide next season.

A look ahead . . .

What: Stanford Invitational

When: Friday-Sunday, March 30-April 1

Where: Stanford Golf Course, Stanford, Calif.

Why it’s important: This is an important event out West for a bevy of top-15 teams that want to start peaking as the postseason approaches. Included in that group are No. 4 UCLA, No. 5 USC, No. 7 Washington, No. 11 Stanford, No. 12 Oregon and No. 13 San Diego State, which will put two impressive winning streaks on the line. The Aztecs have captured four consecutive team crowns, and J.J. Spaun has won three individual titles in a row. Can they keep them going against this field?

• • •

What: Insperity Augusta State Invitational

When: Saturday-Sunday, March 31-April 1

Where: Forest Hills Golf Club, Augusta, Ga.

Why it’s important: This 16-team event – which kicks off a week of golf in Augusta (The Masters, anyone?) – features 13 teams in the top 60 of the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, led by No. 1 Texas. Other top-60 teams: Clemson (14), Oklahoma State (22), Baylor (27), TCU (35), Illinois (39), SMU (40), Augusta State (46), Tennessee (50), Lamar (51), Virginia Tech (55), South Carolina (56) and Houston (59). Those teams in the 50-60 range especially are seeking good performances at Forest Hills to ensure they keep their positions, which would go a long way toward securing NCAA regional invitations.

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