Arkansas State men's golf 'comfortable' at Golfweek Conference Challenge

Danny Lawhon/USA TODAY Network

Arkansas State men's golf 'comfortable' at Golfweek Conference Challenge

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Arkansas State men's golf 'comfortable' at Golfweek Conference Challenge

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Mike Hagen isn’t seeing many differences from last year’s Arkansas State golf team to the one he’s put together this fall.

There are a couple new faces, sure, but the chemistry and confidence aren’t waning.

More of the same would be just fine to the fifth-year coach, considering how the 2018-19 campaign unfolded.

There was nothing big, you know. Just a runaway title at the Golfweek Conference Challenge, four more victories, two other top-three team finishes, a consistent top-20 national ranking, the school’s first Sun Belt Conference title and vital experience at the NCAA regional level.

The defending champs, who entered the season inside the Golfweek top 30, are making a worthy go of it for back-to-back crowns at this year’s Challenge event at the Cedar Rapids Country Club. The Red Wolves sit in second place alone, 11 strokes behind Ball State, after two rounds of the 16-team tournament.

It’s all a pretty comfortable feeling, for players and coaches alike.

Golfweek Conference Challenge: Team | Individual | Photos

“You know, I am comfortable. I’m really comfortable. That’s weird. No, wait, it’s not weird,” Hagen said. “I think as a coach, you’re high-strung. If you want to be really good at what you do, then you’re high-strung. And I can be high-strung at this, because it’s stressful. But these guys, they’ve just got it. And I feel really comfortable because of that.”

Hagen returns a top three of Zan Luka Sitrn (second, 7-under), Julien Sale (who won the individual Golfweek Conference Challenge last year) and Luke Naglic (72.06 scoring average in 2018-19) who helped lift Arkansas State to those unprecedented heights. He’s added Australian Adam Thorp (T-10th, 2-under), who figures to add extra skill and energy as a freshman.

There are many steps to make between now and crunch time next spring. But the senior leadership is liking the first few paces being put in.

“We have expectations to just stay in the present. I know it’s cliché, but it works out a lot that way,” said Sale. “If you start thinking back and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, we did this and we did that,’ then we put do much pressure on ourselves. A step at a time is much easier.”

That selective forgetfulness works both ways. Sale stumbled to an opening-round 80 here Sunday. He rebounded with a 3-under 69 on Monday that included five birdies.

“There were no excuses, and he just responded,” Hagen said. “I told him, ‘We’ll take another 69 tomorrow, Jules, if you want to fire it.’”

Stirn takes the present in existentially larger strides. There’s the whole one-day-at-a-time approach, to be sure, but the epmhasis is almost always on something bigger than the shot at hand.

“I focus on the process, which is what I’ve done the past three years, and it’s proven to be successful,” he said. “You work on technique, drills, all those aspects, and even the mental game. You take that part of it day by day and don’t think too far ahead. Even though we all have goals, being your best self each day will bring the results.”

Stirn experienced his own ebbs and flows on a more micro level Monday than Sale did. In his first-round 66 that pushed him to the lead, Stirn made a 20-foot birdie putt with early 9 feet of break on No. 18 to close the afternoon.

On Monday, he three-putted on the same hole from about twice that distance, leaving his first putt a good 10 feet short.

That’s golf, he said, and that’s just one hole.

“You keep pushing, both yourself and each other, and it’s all motivating,” he said.

The answer hinted at an easy confidence that permeates much of the Red Wolves’ nucleus. Those feelings rub off on their newly-comfortable coach, who can see that his team won’t be rattled when its next big moment comes.

And the way they’ve been playing, more of those positive butterflies are just around the corner.

“The chemistry as a group is really good, and I think that’s the best part about these guys,” Hagen said. “I kind of see everybody working together, whether in drills or a practice or even out playing nine. Everyone kind of gets along and is willing to help each other out. That can take you a long way.”

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