Tennessee’s start anything but rocky under new coach

Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee’s start anything but rocky under new coach

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Tennessee’s start anything but rocky under new coach

When Brennan Webb was announced as the new coach of the Tennessee men’s golf program in June, he didn’t know much about the group of players he was inheriting. It didn’t take long for that to change.

During the Vols’ first workout together last month, a 6 a.m. Thursday gym session, Webb was impressed by what he saw – guys encouraging each other, pushing one another, challenging themselves.

“I looked down at my watch and it was 6:11,” Webb said. “At the end of the workout I called them all together and told them, ‘Guys, it took me 11 minutes to figure out that my perception of you and everybody else’s perception of you is wrong.’”

Tennessee junior Jake Meenhorst knows what’s been said about the Vols in the past: Not focused. Lazy. Complacent.

“The last few years, we’ve been talked about as a group that has underperformed,” Meenhorst said. “We’ve always had the talent, but the guys are more hungry this year. We really want to show that Tennessee can hang with the best teams in the nation.”

Last weekend at the Carpet Capital Collegiate, the Vols proved it, topping Georgia Tech in a playoff and beating some of the country’s top teams – Alabama by two shots, LSU by 30, California by 39 and Florida by 49. Meenhorst led the way with a T-2 finish and shot 66 in the second round. Fellow juniors Rhys Nevin and Brayden Garrison also notched top-10s, finishing T-6 and T-8, respectively.

For a program that hasn’t finished better than eighth at the SEC Championship in seven years and has failed to advance to the NCAA Championship every season since 2013, there was reason to celebrate – but not for long. Two days later the Vols were back to work.

Webb’s philosophy: Work hard at home. Reap the benefits on the road. Repeat.

“The reason why they are getting to enjoy this is because of the work that they’ve done since they got on campus three weeks ago,” Webb said. “I’m glad that they’ve gotten to experience this early on, but one tournament doesn’t make your year, and we have a lot of things left that we want to accomplish.”

Webb spent the past two seasons as the coach at Middle Tennessee State, leading the Blue Raiders to two consecutive top-7 finishes at NCAA regionals, and before that was an assistant under Bruce Heppler at Georgia Tech. When he arrived in Knoxville in June as the replacement for Jim Kelson, who had retired just weeks before after 20 seasons with the Vols, Webb not only brought with him that winning experience but also a spark that has lit a fire under the Tennessee players.

“In our very first meeting as a team, he started it by saying, ‘I came here to win championships,’” junior Hunter Wolcott said. “To have that being the first words out of your new coach’s mouth, that was exciting.”

Webb also told his new team about what it takes to win those championships. One of his favorite stories is when he’d regularly find former Yellow Jackets standout Ollie Schniederjans, now on the PGA Tour, practicing his putting at 10 p.m. on a Friday night. The message was effective. Last Wednesday, just two days after winning at the Carpet Capital, eight Vols were still at the team’s practice facility as the sun was setting.

“A week earlier, it was a ghost town,” Webb said.

Of course, that’s still just more than half of the team’s roster. Webb brought two players with him from Middle Tennessee – sophomore Tyler Johnson and junior Chip Thomas – along with three freshmen to push the roster total to 14 players. While five players are redshirting this season, the added talent has made the competition at home much tougher.

In Tennessee’s first qualifier of the fall, Nevin and Johnson comfortably took the first two spots, but five players found themselves battling it out for the final three berths on the back nine of the final of four rounds. Wolcott and Garrison each had to make clutch putts on their final holes to secure their spots in the lineup.

“The last six holes were really nerve-racking,” Wolcott said. “You really saw who had the guts.”

Said Nevin: “I remember people saying after the playoff against Georgia Tech that they were nowhere near as nervous in that playoff as they were in qualifying.”

Webb liked how his team responded under pressure so much that he planned to make every player qualify again for the Vols’ next event, the Inverness Intercollegiate, which begins Sept. 24.

There’s no doubt Webb has set the bar high since he’s been at Tennessee. He expects much of his guys and isn’t afraid to push them. At a recent practice, the Vols showed a lack of enthusiasm during a chipping game when Webb stopped play and gathered his team.

“He chewed into us,” Wolcott said. “He’s like, ‘We’ve got to get something out of this day. If not, then what are we doing here?’ I love that about him. He challenges us. … He knows what we want and he wants it for us, too, so he’s going to do whatever it takes to push us that extra mile.”

Added Nevin: “The past two years, I’ve been waiting for us to show our potential. Coach has found a way to let out that potential.”

And it didn’t take long at all. Gwk

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