Arkansas State posts statement win at rain-shortened Golfweek Conference Challenge

Golfweek/Kevin Casey

Arkansas State posts statement win at rain-shortened Golfweek Conference Challenge

College

Arkansas State posts statement win at rain-shortened Golfweek Conference Challenge

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Arkansas State had won just a single tournament in his first three years, and yet when Seth Garner entered his senior season he encountered a high-energy new head coach intent on playing without fear.

“My biggest thing before was, we tried to be just average. We were always thinking, ‘What’s the middle of the pack doing?’ ” said Garner, who played for Arkansas State from 2012-16. “Our new coach (Mike) Hagen would rather go in with, ‘We’re going to kick (expletive).'”

A more aggressive Red Wolves squad – gunning for birdies and low numbers with abandon – would win five times that 2015-16 season, authoring a campaign that saw the program jump from 194th to 79th in the country. And the building continues.

Due to inclement weather, Tuesday’s final round of the 16-team Golfweek Conference Challenge was cancelled. That meant the 36-hole leader earned the victory with no more work. It was Arkansas State claiming the crown, as the Red Wolves had raced out to 23 under and a 12-shot lead over host Iowa after the first two days.

With the no-play Tuesday, that became a dominant statement victory with teams like the Hawkeyes and UCLA in the field.

“A win like this, at a Golfweek event, everybody notices it,” said Hagen, now in his fourth season helming Arkansas State.

The Red Wolves, a Sun Belt school, became the first non-Power Five team to capture the Golfweek Conference Challenge in its 10-year history. And it certainly didn’t look like an upset.

That’s no accident, as the program doesn’t treat itself like a non-Power Five. Hagen deterred the team from posting goals for this season, because shooting for certain numbers can actually be limiting.

This is the same man who early in the 2015-16 season at the Memphis Intercollegiate saw his team (ranked 194th the previous campaign) holding a slim lead over a top-30 squad in Memphis entering the final round and didn’t act the least bit like an intimidated underdog.

“It wasn’t, ‘OK we have to hang onto our position.’ It was like, ‘We’re going to win by 20 tomorrow,’ ” Garner said. “He wasn’t thinking if, it was when we beat Memphis tomorrow.”

While Arkansas State has not been able to improve rankings-wise on that 2015-16 campaign that saw a No. 79 end-of-season rating, the Red Wolves retained a quiet confidence about their prospects.

Hagen kept pounding in his high-belief teachings.

“It’s trying to build that winning culture, having guys believe in themselves and feeding it to where everyone is like, ‘Hey, we can be a champion. We can win championships. We can win tournaments. We can win individually. We can do things. We can turn things around and be a part of something special,’ ” Hagen said.

So far in 2018-19, it has been just that. The Red Wolves began this campaign with a promising runner-up showing at the Lone Star Invitational and came out firing at Cedar Rapids Country Club on Sunday with an 11-under 277 for an early four-shot lead.

A new day only bolstered Arkansas State’s mojo, as the team fired a follow-up 276 to jump the cushion to 12. The cancellation of the final day was good news in a way for the Red Wolves, as it guaranteed a victory. But it’s not like they came into Tuesday timid.

In a team meeting Monday night, Hagen told his crew, Don’t just go out there and try to win. Let’s leave them in the dust.

After years of preaching, that approach of supreme confidence has seeped in.

“(Coach) has said many times that we’re better than the players we’re playing against, no matter who the player might be,” said junior Zan Luka Stirn, who tied for 13th at 2 under. “If you believe that, anything is possible.”

It certainly showed in Julien Sale. The junior wasn’t in the starting lineup for the season opener, but the team held a qualifier among Sale and the other two who were left off the starting roster at Lone Star. Sale won the qualifier and waited to hear what it would mean.

Hagen decided to put the junior in the lineup in Cedar Rapids, and Sale rewarded him by going 8 under in his 36 holes and capturing a three-shot win in the individual race. He led a group of three Arkansas State players who finished in the top five (Joel Wendin, T-2 at 5 under and Luka Naglic, T-5 at 4 under).

When Hagen, who previously won four NJCAA Division I national championships as head coach at Indian Hills, started at Arkansas State in the summer of 2015, he immediately implemented more structure in the program.

Tardiness would not be tolerated – getting to practice 10 minutes early meant being on time – and idle time during practice was cut down. Hagen has also put in more specific drills in practice, such as making 100 4-foot putts in a row or practicing wedges from several different distances at different trajectories.

Arkansas State never comes unprepared.

“We definitely put in more work than 95 percent of the other schools,” Wendin said. “I’m sure about that.”

Hagen has hammered home the winner mentality further this campaign by bringing out a phrase tied to his friendships with basketball coaches. He heard a story of a basketball coach who belted out to his complaining players, “Get Good or Get Gone,” and liked the sound of the phrase.

A GGOGG shortening of the moniker appears on Red Wolves players’ yardage books and Hagen will bring up the phrase from time to time as yet another motivator.

“Life’s a battle, life’s a game and you want to be the best that you can be at whatever it is you want to do,” Hagen said, explaining the mantra. “Figure it out, get good. Figure out a way to win, figure a way to get better, otherwise somebody else will want to do it.”

In this group, nobody is backing off. Hagen notes no player has been late this season and that he hasn’t had to put as much structure into practice because this is such a self-motivated team.

Stirn and senior Jakub Bares (T-56, 6 over) have taken it upon themselves to add even more motivation in competition.

Since the beginning of last spring, the pair has engaged in a series of challenges at college tournaments. The competition is simply about whoever scores lower at the event, with the loser facing a humorous punishment determined before the start of play.

One of the challenges Stirn had to undertake in defeat: being dressed up in Bares’ choice of garb, posing for a photo, and having Bares write whatever caption he wanted and post the photo on Stirn’s Instagram.

Stirn, though, has bested Bare in each of the first two tournaments of the season. For this week, the winner could come up with whatever two crazy exercises he wishes the loser to do at the gym one future day.

Stirn isn’t sure yet what he will cook up there, and he’s still pondering what to do about his season-opening triumph – where the winner, one random day, can choose the loser’s clothes, which he has to wear to class.

“I’m still thinking if I should pick the hottest day and just give him seven layers or if I should just wait for the coldest day and give him some glasses and swim trunks,” Stirn said, laughing.

Even if it’s light-hearted, Stirn finds the addition of the challenges has pushed him in tournaments when it feels like his motivation could slip.

The Tuesday rain-out proved disappointing as Stirn and Bares had decided to add on another challenge tied to that round. Whoever had the lower score Tuesday won, and the defeated player would have to go to McDonald’s and try to order a double cheeseburger without patties or cheese (with the ensuing conversation being voice recorded for posterity).

While the day’s cancellation made that fall through, there has been some chatter about expanding this to the full team: The idea being whoever finishes last on the team in each round in a future tournament must deal with one of these pre-determined challenges.

The group will have a couple weeks off to think about that as well as attempting to carry on from this strong start.

The Red Wolves’ fall season resumes in early October, and the confident mindset is doing wonders.

It doesn’t matter the name of the program – the way the group is playing, Hagen isn’t going to start setting limits now.

“I think we’re going to be contenders in the Sun Belt or anything we play in,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

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