Men's Golf
Illini Aim Higher in 2013

Illini head coach Mike Small and reigning NCAA champion Thomas Pieters lead the Illini into the 2013 campaign.
Illini head coach Mike Small and reigning NCAA champion Thomas Pieters lead the Illini into the 2013 campaign.

Jan. 24, 2013

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - After winning four consecutive Big Ten championships and becoming one of only six programs to advance to each of the last five NCAA Championships, Illinois continues to advance as a force on the national scene. Currently ranked No. 17 in the nation by all three major rankings and with 2012 NCAA individual medalist Thomas Pieters returning for his final collegiate season in 2013, the Illini have their sights set on not only a fifth-straight Big Ten title but also a sixth-straight trip to the NCAA Championships.

Illinois opens the 2013 spring season this Saturday with the annual Tinervin Cup against Illinois State in Placida, Fla. The Illini are 9-0 all-time against the Redbirds in the event after winning 7-2, sweeping the match play portion and going 4-2 in singles, in the 2012 event.

"We're excited about the challenges of this coming spring and trying to build on our program's past successes, but we also understand that past performance is no guarantee of future results," head coach Mike Small said. "So we have to understand that we need to build our body of work throughout the spring and make a point to get better every day, every week, every tournament, so that when we come into late April, May and June - the championship part of our season - we're at the top of our game. We need to get our minds set in the present and be ready to attack this strong spring schedule."

In 2013, Illinois must replace one of the most accomplished golfers in school history in Luke Guthrie, a two-time Big Ten individual champion and NCAA Regional medalist who already has earned his PGA Tour card and finished tied for 27th at last weekend's Humana Challenge.

But Pieters, who played for Europe in the 2012 Palmer Cup and participated in the 2012 World Amateur Team Championship, will lead a young, talented Illini squad in 2013. Fifth-year senior Mason Jacobs is the only player in his final season of eligibility and five of the seven golfers who participated in fall tournaments for Illinois are freshmen or sophomores.

"The next step for this program is finding who the next key guy is after Thomas," Small said. "In practice, I'm watching the habits, the mindset, the focus to see who's going to carry their success from practice to the tournaments. Who are going to be the next guys to stand up and take ownership of this program? I want leadership by committee. We have no captains for a reason; I want everybody to be a captain."

Pieters, whom GolfWorld lists as the No. 9 player to watch for 2012-13, was the Illini's stroke leader in the fall, averaging a 72.00 in two tournaments and finishing sixth at the Wolf Run Invitational as Illinois' top finisher. He also placed ninth at the D.A. Weibring Invitational, one of three Illini in the top 10.

Also in the top 300 of GolfWeek's individual rankings are freshmen Charlie Danielson, who is currently ranked No. 76, and Thomas Detry (No. 122), sophomore Brian Campbell (No. 138) and freshman David Kim (No. 257). Danielson and Detry burst onto the scene in the fall, each recording three top-20 finishes, Campbell notched a pair of top-20 finishes and Kim finished in the top 20 twice.

Alex Burge and Campbell, Illinois' pair of sophomores, were key factors in Illinois' 2012 Big Ten title, with Campbell tying for 15th and Burge tying for 47th at the Big Ten Championships. Both also played well during the fall season, with Campbell tying for ninth at the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational and both players shooting two rounds under par.

Jacobs, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2012, looks to show consistency in his final campaign. With four top-10 finishes in his career and a 14th-place result at the 2011 NCAA Regional, Jacobs can be a reliable force in the Illini lineup in 2013.

"The big part of the successful fall was that it showed our young guys that they can compete at this level," Small said. "Now we need to develop consistency in their games to a point where we can sustain that success moving forward.

"It's also important for our players to realize that the past is in the past and in golf, you need to prove yourself every week, every tournament. There's a mental toughness that our teams have shown before and I'm excited to see if this team can continue that identity."

Illinois faces a solid spring schedule, with the unique Big Ten Match Play event in Sarasota, Fla., on Feb. 8-9, followed by a very strong field at the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate on Feb. 18-19. After tournaments in Louisiana and Arizona in March, the Illini travel to the Insperity Augusta State Invitational on April 6-7, which is listed as the fourth-toughest 2013 tournament by Golf Digest according to the number of teams in the field who are mentioned in the coaches' poll.

Then the Illini return to the Midwest to compete in Purdue's Boilermaker Invitational before beginning the championship portion of the schedule at the Big Ten Championships in French Lick, Ind., April 26-28. NCAA Regionals run from May 16-18, while NCAA Championships run from May 28-June 2 at the Capital City Club's Crabapple Course in Atlanta, Ga.