Ball State races to four-stroke lead over host Iowa at Golfweek Conference Challenge

Danny Lawhon/USA TODAY Network

Ball State races to four-stroke lead over host Iowa at Golfweek Conference Challenge

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Ball State races to four-stroke lead over host Iowa at Golfweek Conference Challenge

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Mike Fleck was hopeful his Ball State golfers would make good use of their DECADE system gameplan at the 11th annual Golfweek Conference Challenge.

And with 18 holes of the fall season on the scorecard, it looked like most of the Cardinals had been playing Cedar Rapids Country Club for a decade.

The Mid-American Conference squad had three players card rounds in the 60s on the Donald Ross layout, and Ball State raced to a four-stroke lead over host Iowa on Sunday with a 9-under-par total of 279.

Reigning MAC freshman of the year Joey Ranieri is in a four-way tie for second individually following his bogey-free, four-under 68. Yianni Kostouros had an eagle in his round of 69, and teammate Keegan Bronnenberg used five front-nine birdies to join him in a share of sixth.

GOLFWEEK CONFERENCE CHALLENGE: Scores | Photos

The system that charts strokes gained, tracks advanced round analytics and can give indicators of mental focus around the golf course was just one tool that helped the Cardinals feel prepared. Most of them had seen the 7,086-yard track before, with Ball State finishing 11th last fall in a Golfweek-organized field that features one team from 16 different conferences nationwide.

“We definitely had a game plan, getting a few rounds here under our belt last year and a practice round this year,” Fleck said. “Obviously, you must keep the ball in certain positions on these greens and must be able to take advantage of par-5s and play pretty smart golf all the way around.

“It turned into a solid team round for us.”

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Nobody exemplified that strategy better than the sophomore Ranieri, who had two birdies on each nine to steadily reach his team-pacing score. He only trails individual leader Zan Luka Stirn of defending team champion Arkansas State, who himself managed a bogey-round of 6-under 66.

“I didn’t really have a weakness today,” he said. “I hit the ball well, got off the tee nicely. I hit a couple putts early, which helped, and I’m just excited to get out here tomorrow.”

“… We tried to incorporate (the DECADE system) – making sure you play to the percentages and play aggressively to conservative targets. Just take what the course gives you. We’ve done a really good job of that so far, and hopefully we can continue along.”

First-round play at the Golfweek Conference Challenge at Cedar Rapids Country Club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The Donald Ross design is hosting the 11th annual event for the third time. All 11 editions of the Challenge have taken place in Iowa. Photo: Danny Lawhon/USA TODAY Network

The second-place Hawkeyes of the Big Ten are continuing their series of impressive efforts in their home state. Iowa has finished as team runner-up each of the past two Challenges and has placed third or better in four of the past five years. Alex Schaake and Benton Weinberg paced the in-state side with a pair of 69s. Iowa is at 5-under as a team after 36 holes.

The only other team to break par as a group was Campbell, of the Big South Conference. The Fighting Camels are at 4-under 284, with Pontus Nyholm’s individual round of 4-under at the forefront.

David Perkins of Illinois State and Vitek Novak of Missouri-Kansas City round out the four-way share for second.

Arkansas State, of the Sun Belt Conference, was the first non-Power Five school to win the men’s Golfweek Conference Challenge with its title last year. The Red Wolves are in fourth place alone at level par in their defense of that crown.

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