Southern Illinois fully enjoys short time at surprise No. 1 ranking

Courtesy of SIU Athletics

Southern Illinois fully enjoys short time at surprise No. 1 ranking

College

Southern Illinois fully enjoys short time at surprise No. 1 ranking

The top ranking in men’s college golf has found its way to the state of Illinois several times in recent years, as the Fighting Illini have emerged as a powerhouse under head coach Mike Small.

Now, the Illini have some in-state company.

The first Golfweek/Sagarin men’s team college rankings of the 2018-19 season dropped last week and the squad that opened on top was … Southern Illinois?

Yes, the No. 1 Salukis. This is a program that has never finished a season in the top 100 in these rankings, which date back to the 1999-2000 season. To say Southern Illinois being No. 1 was a surprise is an understatement.

Former Southern Illinois player Dirk Kuehler reached out to Frankie Thomas (a junior on the squad) as a confused onlooker, telling his former roommate and teammate: Saw you guys were ranked No. 1. How the hell did that happen?

He wasn’t the only one in shock.

“Thought it was fake news, didn’t really believe it at first,” said senior Luke Gannon, laughing.

It was indeed real, though … with a big caveat.

The Golfweek/Sagarin rankings are a head-to-head based ratings system. Southern Illinois won its season opener (the Fuzzy Zoeller Intercollegiate), beating host Indiana by 10 shots. That was a significant head-to-head victory by a sizable margin, and even more so over the remainder of the 11 squads in the field.

The rankings thrive on head-to-head connections between all the teams, but those are sparse early in the season thanks to minimal results. So while Southern Illinois got off to a strong start, the No. 1 ranking arose mostly due to a lack of data and connection in the rankings.

A Sunday update to the rankings allowed for more data and connection, and Southern Illinois summarily fell to No. 31.

So the top spot was, for the moment, mostly a short-lived quirk of the rankings system early in the season. But that doesn’t mean the Salukis didn’t enjoy every minute of their top billing.

“We did have a little fun with it. I can finally say, ‘I played for the No. 1 team in the nation,’ ” Thomas said, smiling. “Might go on my resume as I try to look for jobs here in the next few years.”

Salukis players ribbed their head coach Justin Fetcho in noting they were ranked higher than his old team (Fetcho served as an assistant coach for Illinois from 2013-14).

They also couldn’t help but joke about deserving more resources now that the program was top dog.

“They’re like, ‘How does the No. 1 team in the country not have a ping pong table? How do we not have this or this?'” Fetcho said, laughing. “They want to try to push the envelope and see what they can do to get in coach’s pocket.”

Fetcho has been in on the good times as well.

The head coach joked that sending a screenshot of the ranking to recruits wouldn’t be a bad idea. Fetcho and Small, Illinois’ head coach since 2000, haven’t chatted about Southern Illinois’ No. 1 spot, but the former assistant may have his fun there too.

“Maybe I need to screenshot (our top ranking) and send it to him. Just tell him, ‘Hey, I didn’t see you guys on there,'” Fetcho quipped.

Justin Fetcho (left) is currently in his fifth season as head coach at Southern Illinois. (Courtesy of SIU Athletics)

While the humor flows, the short time on top was also a serious boost.

Southern Illinois’ athletic department blasted out the No. 1 ranking on social media and, in the immediate aftermath, Fetcho’s phone would not stop buzzing as people reached out and commented about the news.

Complete strangers came up to friends of Fetcho’s to comment on how well the golf program was doing.

The exposure has been massive.

“Our program has come a long way,” Fetcho said. “Even if it takes something like throwing a No. 1 ranking out there for people to see that our program has got some really good, talented players that come here and work hard, then that’s great.”

Southern Illinois didn’t have its best follow-up at the Golfweek Conference Challenge, as the Salukis finished eighth in the 16-team field Tuesday.

But those same Golfweek/Sagarin rankings prove Fetcho’s analysis right.

When Fetcho took over at Southern Illinois in June 2014, the program had finished in the top 200 in the rankings just once the previous five seasons.

The group jumped to No. 177 at the end of the 2015-16 season, crept up further to No. 166 at the conclusion of 2016-17 and finished last season all the way up at No. 123.

It’s early in the 2018-19 campaign, but even with Sunday’s update Southern Illinois is a fringe top-30 team at the moment.

“The team is substantially better than it was when I first got here,” Thomas said. “It’s fun to watch that progression, fun to watch how (Justin’s) been able to help us become better mentally and physically.”

The group will be rewarded after all, by the way, for its season-opening performance. Fetcho told his players before the season that if the team won a tournament this fall, he would get them something (whatever they wished) to improve the team locker room.

Players voted on a ping pong table and then went out and dominated the opener. Now Fetcho has the addition of the ping pong table in the works.

And who knows, the new locker room addition could even include an homage to the group’s time at the top.

“Maybe we’ll have a picture of Frankie’s face with No. 1 ranking in the country beside it right there on the ping pong table,” Fetcho said, laughing.

Fetcho hopes the No. 1 ranking is a confidence-booster and a reminder that the sky is the limit.

Of course the goal is to get back up near or to that top spot. But even if this is it on that front, it’s still a moment for the program to cherish.

“Who would’ve thought that at any moment in any part of the season 5 or 10 years ago that they would’ve ever seen SIU No. 1?” Fetcho said. “It was a neat thing for our school to be able to have something like that.”

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