Years after reinstatement, West Virginia building toward something big

Todd Drexler

Years after reinstatement, West Virginia building toward something big

College

Years after reinstatement, West Virginia building toward something big

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WINDERMERE, Fla. – Sean Covich was nearly in tears earlier this month as his team lost a match at the Big 12 Match Play Tournament to Oklahoma State.

But they were emotions of joy. In his fourth season at the helm of West Virginia, Covich couldn’t help showing immense pride in his squad pushing the defending national champions and No. 1 team in the country to at least 16 holes in every match of a 4-1-1 defeat.

“That was a big moment for us,” Covich said. “Just being able to watch and play with them and see our golf balls next to theirs in the fairway, next to theirs on the green, it was like, ‘Man, we’re not that far off.’ ”

A vision like that would have been stunning four years ago.

Covich began as head coach of the Mountaineers in May 2014, but he took over a program that was nothing. Literally, nothing.

West Virginia had last competed in men’s college golf in 1982 and shelved the program for over 30 years before deciding on reinstatement for the 2015-16 season. Covich had less than a year then to restart the program and get it on track by the time it returned to competition.

Oh and by the way, you’ve got to do that playing in the Big 12.

“Not only were we starting from scratch, but then we were going to be measured against Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma. So that was pretty daunting,” said Covich, who served as an assistant coach at Mississippi State before coming to West Virginia. “There’s really nobody to call, you’ve just got to figure it out.”

Four years later, and it seems they have.

West Virginia serves as co-host at this week’s prestigious Tavistock Collegiate Invitational at Isleworth Golf and Country Club. While the Mountaineers finished 16th out of 17 teams in that role here last year, they comfortably sit in a tie for fifth heading into Tuesday’s final round this time.

That’s in a field including eight top-25 teams, with West Virginia currently beating the likes of Cal, LSU, Illinois and Florida. The Mountaineers finished their opening 2015-16 season 162nd in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. They climbed to No. 124 at the end of 2016-17 and moved up again to 90th by the conclusion of last season.

Entering this week, West Virginia finds itself all the way up to No. 47. And the squad should only move higher if it can hold around fifth place by tournament’s end.

No progression is smooth or simple, though. The Mountaineers battled fiercely to get here.

When senior Max Sear caught on to the possibility of playing at West Virginia, the Canadian was excited to be a foundational building block.

“The main thing was just being a part of something new I felt was pretty cool,” said Sear, who’s T-4 at 5 under at Isleworth.

The reality of the climb, though, soon set in.

Sear can still remember the very first workout he ever had at West Virginia: Essentially 90 minutes of pushing sleds, a grueling exercise that left some puking.

“It was so painful,” Sear said, chuckling at the memory.

The Mountaineers would finish a respectable 10th out of 15 teams in their first competitive event since reinstatement. But that was nothing to celebrate.

There’s a hill behind West Virginia’s football stadium that leads up to the university’s law school, a monstrous slope that’s been referred to as “Victory Hill.” It takes several seconds to sprint up and is so steep it can have you winded after just a single climb.

The players had to embark on nine agonizing sprints up Victory Hill after that opening 10th place, one for every team they lost to. It’s a practice Covich employed for that entire opening campaign.

The brutal workout was part of a strategy to make things as difficult as possible early on.

“We just kind of wanted to send a message, ‘It’s going to be tough, losing is never fun. So play better,’ ” Covich said.

If that sounds harsh, well it was a program starting from scratch and in need of everyone buying in. So measures to weed out players who weren’t committed were important.

That concept proved immeasurable in the reinstalled program’s sophomore season.

Covich joked that amidst early growing pains, he only quit the job in his head 48 times. But he was indeed near his wit’s end early in the 2017 spring when it was clear his calls for dedication, preparation and professionalism were not quite seeping in.

“I thought I was going to quit at that point because I felt I was doing a bad job and the guys just weren’t listening,” Covich said.

So the tough choice was made to churn down the roster, removing players who were bringing a negative influence and not living up to program standards.

It would be a turning point.

“There was definitely a little bit of division on our team, guys not hanging out with other guys. We were a new team, not everyone was clicking,” Sear said. “When we were able to cut down, we built a lot more camaraderie. It was a better team atmosphere.”

Later that spring, an energized group jamming the whole 5-hour van ride to the East Carolina Intercollegiate captured the title for the program’s first win since reinstatement.

They’d follow up with another in the 2017-18 fall at the Janney VCU Shootout and a third at the Marin Downs Collegiate last spring. The Mountaineers captured their home event this fall too.

Sear (left) captured The Health Plan Mountaineer Invitational this fall for the program’s first individual title since reinstatement. (WVU Athletic Communications)

The optimism extends beyond the winning. Covich feels the culture has so transformed there’s no longer a question of whether players are reaching the program standard. Testers like Victory Hill are basically no longer needed (but still come in handy if a player decides to slip by being late or cussing).

Covich purposely propped up the program in early years with transfers, but he notes that in Season Four the squad is composed of players where pretty much all they’ve known is West Virginia golf.

That’s given the squad depth. Sear still leads the way this season with a No. 103 ranking, but junior Etienne Papineau (185) and sophomore Matthew Sharpstene (269) are also ranked in the top 300. All three sit in the top 20 this week at Isleworth.

The head coach has gotten back to his playing roots, too. A return to competitive golf over this summer after years of hiatus gave Covich a new player’s perspective that has bolstered his coaching.

The program is still catching up on the facilities front, but construction on a state-of-the-art golf complex is expected to break ground next year.

Covich had a vision for the program, one that noted by the time Sear was done the team would be in strong consideration for an NCAA regionals spot. Plenty of season remains, but the Mountaineers would cruise to an at-large regionals bid at their current ranking.

While the year-by-year jumps have been smooth, the process to get there has obviously had its bumps.

And yet, West Virginia may not have reached this fast track without them.

“Whatever was miserable the first year, me and Max actually laugh about it now,” Covich said. “We laugh about it because we lived through it, it made us stronger and now things are so much better.”

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