Nevada entered the 2018-19 season with three of its biggest contributors gone to graduation and one of its incoming freshmen deciding to turn pro instead.
Yet coach Jacob Wilner told his returning players they would be better than the previous season’s group.
“When coach said that, me and (teammate) Joey (Vrzich, above) kind of looked at each other and laughed,” junior Sam Harned said.
The assessment has been spot on.
A season after the Wolf Pack made NCAA regionals for the first time since 2007 and finished ranked 55th, they have come out smoking. Nevada finished in the top three in its opening two events, then posted a pair of wins to rocket to No. 30 in the Golfweek/Sagarin Rankings ahead of its fall finale.
It’s a group that has refused to back down in the biggest moments.
“The cool thing about it is they’re not afraid,” Wilner said.
Vrzich, a sophomore, was the second-best player on the team his opening season but didn’t make much noise nationally with an end-of-season ranking of 351. But he’s won twice and hasn’t finished worse than second this fall and finds himself all the way up to No. 16.
For Harned, the jump has been even higher as he’s rocketed from No. 640 in 2017-18 to No. 182 in the 2018-19 campaign.
Wilner didn’t think he’d have a clear-cut No. 1 player this season, but Vrzich quickly changed that perception by capturing the season opener for his first college win.
Vrzich picked up golf the summer before his freshman year of high school after hurting his right shoulder as a pitcher in baseball. His ballstriking has long been a strength. But his struggles on the greens last fall led to the yips on short putts.
That continued throughout the season, and at one point he had eight to nine three-putts in the first 36 holes of an event. Over the summer he switched to a lighter putter, and his comfort with the new equipment allowed his confidence to blossom.
He’s registered just two three-putts in four tournaments this fall. Last season he began finishing short putts quickly, not even reading the break, in fear he might dwell on the ticklers otherwise. This year has been entirely different.
“Now I just go up to it and I know I’m going to make it,” Vrzich said.
Harned’s improvement shouldn’t be as much a surprise considering his history. He was a student at Nevada for two years before he was encouraged to try to walk on to the golf team.
Wilner could sense Harned’s self-belief, and his results in amateur events were good enough that the coach gave him a shot. He put Harned in the team qualifier for the season opener; Harned finished sixth to make the team and the travel roster for the opener.
Harned had a solid opening campaign but thinks this season he is more comfortable playing with high-level college golfers and has displayed a calmer attitude.
Even though the roster has changed from last season and includes a transfer in Tony Gil, Harned also believes strong team chemistry has led to growth.
“We’re probably the one team (at tournaments) that walks up to the range and we’re all giggling and making jokes,” Harned said.
But a long-term vision also has pushed Nevada. Wilner is in his ninth season and has made it a focus to improve alumni relations and make enhancements to the program’s facilities and practice options.
The golf programs at Nevada got an upgraded indoor practice facility on campus last year. A facility at nearby Somersett Golf and Country Club is “90 percent done” and a grand opening is expected this spring. Wilner’s team is also able to practice three times a week at Montreux Golf and Country Club, which hosts a PGA Tour event.
“(Alumni relations and better facilities) have allowed us to start bringing in better players,” Wilner said. “I’m going for that kind of Ray Kinsella ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘If you build it, they will come’ attitude.”
That mindset is playing out pretty well. Gwk