ATHENS, Ga. – A breakdown of the second round of the NCAA Southeast Regional:
Top team: Alabama, 23-under 545
Top individual: Bobby Wyatt, 9-under 133
In position (the next four): 2. East Carolina (557), 3. North Florida (562), 4. Georgia (568), 5. New Mexico (575)
Chasing (still work to do): 6. North Carolina-Wilmington (577), 7. Houston (578), 7. Long Beach State (578), Wake Forest (578), 10. Augusta State (579), 11. Iowa (581).
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PROGRAM FIRST: In March, just months before graduation, Adam Stephenson was told something at the General Hackler Championship that he’d never heard in his previous three years at East Carolina.
“Hats off to you guys,” North Florida coach Scott Schroeder told Stephenson and his teammates. “You guys made a run at us. I had to keep looking at scores because we knew you’re right there.”
The comment seemed innocuous enough. But to Stephenson, it meant so much more.
“That never had happened before,” he recalled Friday. “We never had gotten much feedback. We knew we were good, but no one really had recognized it yet.”
When Stephenson was a freshman, in 2008-09, East Carolina finished the season ranked 91st in the country. Today, the Pirates sit 38th. Particularly noteworthy this week, however, is that they now are one round away from advancing to their first-ever NCAA final. East Carolina enters the NCAA Southeast Regional’s final round in second place, 12 shots behind Alabama but, most important, 18 shots ahead of fifth-place New Mexico.
“For years,” Stephenson said, “we’ve kind of taken baby steps, just getting our feet underneath us. This year has been more like we’re trying to take off on a full sprint.”
For years, too, East Carolina relied on the steady play of David Watkins and Harold Varner, both seniors. When they played well, the team played well. When they struggled, so did the team. In Athens, however, the Pirates have been buoyed by the outstanding play of sophomore Ryan Eibner, who is third individually at 7-under 135.
At last month’s Conference USA Championship, where the Pirates eventually finished third, McPhaul held a team meeting to rally his squad. In short, he identified each player’s strengths and urged them to perform that role. Zach Edmondson provides an emotional boost. Watkins is solid. Varner is ferocious. Eibner is a grinder. As for Stephenson? Well, he is resilient. He graduated earlier this month with a degree in biomedical engineering. His courseload was so intensive, he couldn’t practice with the team on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Now, Stephenson said, “I never dreamed of this, being so close to going to nationals. We just have to close the deal.”
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ON THE BUBBLE: If two-time defending NCAA champion Augusta State is to make it back to the NCAA Championship, the Jaguars will need a solid round Saturday — and some help.
Augusta State, which began the day only one shot out of the all-important fifth spot, shot a 12-over 296 Friday to drop into 10th. The Jaguars, however, are only four shots behind fifth-place New Mexico. There are six teams within six strokes of fifth.
“We just didn’t get it done today,” said Augusta State coach Kevin McPherson. “All of our guys hung in there, but there wasn’t that one good score we needed.”
No Augusta State player broke par during a windy day at the University of Georgia Golf Course. Junior Derek Chang shot a team-best 74, an eight-shot improvement from the opening round.
The Jaguars, who return not a single player from last year’s NCAA Championship team, are ranked 44th in the country. Their best finish of the season came at their home event, the Insperity Augusta State Invitational, where they lost in a playoff to top-ranked Texas.
“We’re close,” McPherson said. “At least we’ve given ourselves a chance for tomorrow. As long as we’ve got a chance, we’ve proven that we can play well with pressure before.”
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SHORT SHOTS: Alabama sophomore Bobby Wyatt birdied his last two holes Friday to take the individual lead. Meanwhile, Crimson Tide freshman Justin Thomas, who is one of the National Player of the Year candidates after winning three times this season, made five birdies in a seven-hole stretch to move into second individually. He is one of three Alabama players in the top 5. … Of the teams not currently in the top 5, Long Beach State has the best chance to send a player on to nationals. At 3-under 139, Philip Chian is seventh in the individual race — the highest position for a player not currently on a qualifying team.