Martin: Aztecs could be this year's Augusta State
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PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – San Diego State head coach Ryan Donovan received a text message Thursday morning from the man whose feat he’s trying to repeat. The sender, Josh Gregory, knows how to lead a smaller school to victory in the NCAA Championship. He was at the helm for Augusta State’s consecutive national championships in 2011 and 2012. Donovan’s Aztecs are trying this year to be the team that beats the bigger schools.
NCAA Men's Championship: Round 3
Check out images from Day 3 at the NCAA Men's Championship at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif.
They made the match-play bracket at Riviera Country Club by shooting the week’s low round, an even-par 284, in Thursday’s final round of stroke play. The Aztecs, who started Thursday in 15th place, finished T-4 at 19-over 871. The top eight teams will compete in match play to decided the NCAA Championship.
Like those Augusta State teams, San Diego State has plenty of skill, even if it comes from a smaller conference. The Aztecs, winners of the past two Mountain West Conference titles, are No. 14 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. They won five times this year, including four in a row earlier this spring. They arrived at Riviera having won their conference and finishing second at their regional.
“We believe we can do it,” Donovan said. “With this format, it helps because we’re probably not the strongest team here. You look at Alabama, Texas, Oregon, you can go down the list, they’re probably better. But (match play) gives us a fair shot, and we’re going to go out there and fight hard.”
UCLA, which finished second in stroke play, is located less than six miles from Riviera, but San Diego State will also have its share of local ties. Four of San Diego State’s five starters are from Southern California. Three – Matt Hoffenberg, Alex Kang and J.J. Spaun – grew up within an hour of Riviera’s gates. The Aztecs have a definite Southern California vibe, choosing baggy pants and mesh-back or flat-brim hats.
Spaun, the team’s captain, shot 69 Thursday, while Tom Berry and Hoffenberg added even-par 71s. Colin Featherstone’s 73 was the team’s other counting score. The Aztecs were basically a four-man squad Thursday after the team’s No. 2 player, Alex Kang, triple-bogeyed No. 10 and bogeyed the 11th, his first two holes of the day.
Donovan, who doesn’t have an assistant coach, has pieced together a strong team in a non-traditional manner. They have experience on their side: four of the five players on San Diego State’s roster are seniors. The Aztecs made it this far in spite of the loss of sophomore Todd Baek, who turned pro at mid-season while ranking 15th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“I have to look under rocks and behind doors to get players,” he said. “I’ve got a motivated crew.”
Spaun was this year’s Mountain West Conference Player of the Year after starting his career as a walk-on. He’s No. 22 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings after winning three times this season.
Hoffenberg returned to the team this year after stepping away from the game for 18 months. He had to earn his spot on this season’s roster via try-outs, then won the North Ranch Intercollegiate earlier this spring.
“He had to earn every single bit of it,” Donovan said. “He never questioned me and just kept working hard.”
Making the NCAA Championship’s match-play stage made Hoffenberg even happier to be back on the course. Now he and his teammates have a chance to do something special.
“We didn’t want the season to end yet,” he said.
It hasn’t yet.