Ball State cruises to Golfweek Conference Challenge title

Danny Lawhon/USA TODAY Network

Ball State cruises to Golfweek Conference Challenge title

College

Ball State cruises to Golfweek Conference Challenge title

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – There’s no such thing as perfection in golf. For three days, however, Ball State executed its game plan to perfection.

“I really think it’s the first time,” Cardinals sophomore Joey Ranieri reflected, regarding three days of across-the-board consistency. “Last year, we struggled to put four scores together each day of a tournament. To be able to come together like this for all three days and do this is pretty incredible.”

“This,” by the way, was to go wire-to-wire in winning the team race at the 11th annual Golfweek Conference Challenge at Cedar Rapids Country Club. Ball State finished the job Tuesday, recording a three-day team total of 11-under to beat Campbell by 15 strokes and wind up as the only squad in the 16-team, 16-conference field in red figures for the event.

“This,” for Ranieri, was capping a 54-hole stretch of nearly bogey-free golf. He had just one blip on the 7,086-yard Donald Ross layout for the tournament. There were no blemishes on his 2-under 70 Tuesday to finish at 7-under for the week, good for a second-place tie individually with Sacramento State’s Casey Leebrick (67), who shot just one of three rounds in the 60s on the final day.

Golfweek Conference Challenge: Team | Individual | Photos

And “this,” for Cardinals coach Mike Fleck, is a sign that his Mid-American Conference group is one to be reckoned with for the next eight months.

“It’s huge to get off to a good start. It doesn’t matter what program you are or where you’re playing,” he said. “To get a win and get head-to-heads to establish ourselves early is super important. As the season goes on, you can reflect back on this, if the opportunity provides, to put us in the same situation down the road.”

Ball State began the day with an 11-shot lead over defending champion Arkansas State, and even though the Cardinals were a collective 5-over in the final round, they gained ground on many of their opponents.

Members of the Ball State golf team receive their awards from Golfweek’s Lance Ringler after winning the 11th annual Golfweek Conference Challenge. Photo: Danny Lawhon/USA TODAY Network

Steady breezes near 20 mph accentuated the difficulty of eight pin placements within five yards of the edge of the green. Sacramento State (11th place, 15-over) was the only team to break par Tuesday, with an impressive 7-under total.

“The golf course was very tough today, with the wind, the pins, the speed of the greens. They were really, really good,” Ranieri said. “Plus, the fact that you’re holding a lead with 18 holes to go, it adds more pressure to us.

“I’m just proud of the guys for how we hung in there and were able to pull this out.”

The real breeze was coming down the stretch with more than enough breathing room. Redshirt junior Keegan Bronnenberg closed with a 73 to finish in a four-way tied for sixth a 4-under. Four birdies offset five bogeys on this tough scoring day, and he attributes the team’s treading water to its pre-tournament approach.

“We really became disciplined this week in taking conservative targets but playing as aggressively as we could toward those conservative targets. I think it really paid off,” Bronnenberg said. “As a team, we played as smart as we could.”

For 36 holes, David Perkins of Illinois State played about as well as he could. He held a two-shot lead heading into Tuesday’s final round. But the first two-thirds of his day – he started on hole No. 7 in a shotgun rotation – was a grind.

He said he felt lucky to be just 2-over after walking off No. 18, his 12th hole, and to be tied atop the leaderboard at the time.

The senior was itching for his first collegiate victory, and he closed like a champion, with birdies on three of his final four holes to claim a three-shot win over Ranieri and Leebrick. Perkins posted a 10-under total of 206 to grab that maiden crown.

“(Last spring and summer), I was in contention almost every event but wasn’t able to get one done,” Perkins said. “I used those past experiences into today. With the back nine I had, it was leaning toward that same outcome. I learned a lot about myself in just keeping my head down and playing, and I finished it out.”

Ball State had four players closing rather strong to create a miniature streak at this Golfweek-organized event. In the Conference Challenge’s first nine years, Power Five schools grabbed all the team trophies. With the Cardinals piggy-backing Arkansas State’s runaway victory in 2018, the mid-majors are flexing their muscles now, too.

The team triumph felt especially important to the Cardinals, who have had to wade through its own mess after less-than-stellar autumns.

Spectators on the porch near the Cedar Rapids Country Club’s clubhouse can view action on eight of the course’s 18 holes. Photo: Danny Lawhon/USA TODAY Network

“We’d had good teams the past three to four years but haven’t gotten off to hot starts. We were chasing since the start of the season,” Bronnenberg said. “To be able to start out front and keep the momentum going, to not have to catch up at the end of the season, gives you a good chance at getting a bid for a regional come the spring.”

Kansas State knows that feeling. The Wildcats had a dreadful fall portion of the season in 2018-19, and even a white-hot spring couldn’t keep them from being one of the first teams left out of the NCAA Regional selection process. And unfortunately, the Big 12 Conference squad is facing the prospects of that familiar position again after a last-place showing.

Campbell was second alone at 4-over par, and San Jose State leap-frogged its way in third place at 5-over. Illinois State, Arkansas State and host school Iowa were in a tie for fourth at 7-over. It’s just the second time in the past six Conference Challenges that the Big Ten’s Hawkeyes have finished outside the top three.

Campbell’s Pontus Nyholm (68) and Drexel’s Connor Schmidt (66) had the other two sub-70 final rounds to vault into fourth and fifth place at 6-under and 5-under, respectively. Schmidt came to his final hole (the par-5 ninth) with an eagle putt to set a new course record in the third year in Cedar Rapids, but he putted for par.

Caleb Shetler of San Jose State shared sixth place with Bronnenberg. Oakland’s Thomas Giroux and Arkansas State’s Zan Luka Stirn tied for eighth at 3-under. Carl Corpus of San Jose State and Domenic Maricocchi of Dayton rounded out the top 10 and the 54-hole scores in red figures by finishing at 2-under.

There’s no rounding into form needed for Ball State. The Cardinals are already itching for next week’s Trinity Forest Invitational in Dallas.

That said, there’s time enough to relish this performance for a little while.

“It was a total team effort. We held on,” Fleck said. “I commend them for sticking to the process and getting it done.”

Golfweek Conference Challenge Winners

Team

2019: Cedar Rapids CC – Ball State (MAC)

2018: Cedar Rapids CC – Arkansas State (Sun Belt)

2017: Cedar Rapids CC – North Carolina State (ACC)

2016: Spirit Hollow GC – Kansas (Big 12)

2015: Spirit Hollow GC – Iowa (Big Ten)

2014: Spirit Hollow GC – LSU (SEC)

2013: Spirit Hollow GC – Oklahoma (Big 12)

2012: Spirit Hollow GC – Missouri (SEC)

2011: Spirit Hollow GC – Arkansas (SEC)

2010: Spirit Hollow GC – Iowa (Big Ten)

2009: Blue Top Ridge – Florida State (ACC)

Individual

2019: Cedar Rapids CC – David Perkins (Illinois State)

2018: Cedar Rapids CC – Julien Sale (Arkansas State)

2017: Cedar Rapids CC – Benjamin Shipp (North Carolina State)

2016: Spirit Hollow GC – Chandler Phillips (Texas A&M), Chase Hanna (Kansas)

2015: Spirit Hollow GC – Raymond Knoll (Iowa), Jeremy Gandon (Kansas State)

2014: Spirit Hollow GC – Stewart Jolly (LSU)

2013: Spirit Hollow GC – Scott Vincent (Virginia Tech), Stewart Jolly (LSU)

2012: Spirit Hollow GC – Jace Long (Missouri)

2011: Spirit Hollow GC – Stephan Jaeger (Chattanooga)

2010: Spirit Hollow GC – Chris Brant (Iowa), Vince India (Iowa)

2009: Blue Top Ridge – Drew Kittleson (Florida State), Brad Hopfinger (Iowa)

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