Matt Hoffman gets it up and and down Saturday at the NCAA Regional.
May 17, 2008
Columbus, Ohio -
After Saturday's third and final round of the NCAA Regional, Illini head coach Mike Small couldn't help but reflect on how far his team had progressed. Over the course of the last eight months, Illinois, a team with a lot of young players, has evolved into one of the top teams in the nation.
"Seeing the progression of this team since last fall has been fun to be a part of," Small said. "It says a lot about this team to be strong in this environment."
Teeing off alongside the numbers one and number 22 teams in the country at 6 a.m. central, the Illini not only hung with the nation's elite, but excelled en route to a third-place finish and a bid into the NCAA Championship in two weeks. It marks Illinois' third NCAA Championship berth in the last seven seasons. The top teams played early in the day to avoid potential weather issues.
"Honestly I think playing early took a little of the pressure off because it gave us a chance to put a score up early and not worry about the rest of the teams," said sophomore Matt Hoffman, who tied for 12th place with a nine-over par 222 after shooting 75 Saturday.
Illinois started the day in a tie for third, but at then turn, sat just three strokes in back of Wake Forest for the lead. Of the three teams in the top grouping, Illinois shot 301, No. 22 Wake Forest scored 302 and top-ranked ranked Alabama dipped to sixth with a 309. No. 5 Oklahoma State slipped past the Illini to finish in second by just two strokes, but that couldn't damper the day by Illinois.
The Illini have competed against over half of the top 25 teams in the country and have learned along the way. To put the accomplishment in perspective, playing in its second tournament of the year, the Fighting Illini/Olympia Fields Invitational, in September, Illinois was 30 strokes in back of Oklahoma State and behind top-25 schools Indiana and Tennessee. In the Regional meet, however, the Cowboys needed a late charge to edge Illinois, while the Illini finished ahead of 23rd-rated Indiana by ten strokes and No. 12 Tennessee by 11 strokes. The Hoosiers finished 10th to capture the final transfer spot.
The Illini have built the majority of their momentum this spring, where they have finished in the top three in six of the eight tournaments, including two titles. They have played in the final group in the last three tournaments, placing third at the Big Ten Championship and third at the NCAA Regional.
"Playing in the final group has given us confidence that we can compete against the nation's best," Hoffman said. "We entered the tournament seeded 18th, but came out placing third."
Junior Larry Blatt, a veteran of collegiate golf, but playing in his first season with Illinois, has seen ups and downs, including two top-ten finishes and a tough 46th-place showing individually at the Big Ten meet. Blatt was the solid force behind the Illini this week, posting consistent rounds of 73-74-74 and playing just seven of his first 44 holes over-par on the challenging Par-71 Scarlet Course. Blatt's eight-over par 221 was good for 11th overall.
"Larry Blatt showed a lot of mental toughness this weekend," Small said. "This is one of the toughest golf courses in collegiate golf, but he didn't let it beat him."
Illinois had four players in top 20 overall in the 141-man field. Sophomore Zach Barlow and freshman Scott Langley tied for 20th at 11-over par 224 after both shooting 76. Illinois tied for the fourth-lowest score of the round (301) as only one school shot below 300 on a windy day. Kevin Tway of Oklahoma State won the individual title at +1.
The Illini finished in front of six ranked teams, including No. 1 Alabama and No. 8 Florida. No. 22 Wake Forest (+27) held on to its lead to win the title by 10 strokes over Oklahoma State (+37) and 12 over Illinois (+39). Florida (+42), Louisville (+42), Alabama (+44), No. 19 Texas A&M (+45), Kent State (+46), Penn State (+46) and Indiana (+49) round out the ten schools who qualify for the 30-team NCAA Championship. That event takes place May 28-31 at the Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind.
"What was so impressive about today was we seized the opportunity," Small said. "This solidifies us as one of the top teams in the nation this year."