Thomas Pieters and the Illini aim for their sixth-straight berth to the NCAA Championships at this week's NCAA Fayetteville Regional.
May 14, 2013
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Three weeks removed from its fifth-straight Big Ten championship, the University of Illinois looks to continue another streak when it travels to the NCAA Fayetteville (Ark.) Regional May 16-18 at the par-72, 7,251-yard Blessings Golf Club. The Illini, who are seeded sixth in the regional, will attempt to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the sixth-straight season by finishing in the top five of the 14-team regional field. In addition, the top individual not on a qualifying team will advance to NCAA Championships at The Capital City Club, Crabapple Course, in Atlanta, Ga., May 28-June 2. Illinois is one of only six schools in the country to reach the NCAA Championships in each of the past five seasons.
"We aren't even thinking about that," Illinois head coach Mike Small said of his team's string of NCAA Championships appearances. "We've had success in the past because we've approached this as its own tournament. It's another leg in our three-pronged process of Big Ten Championships, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships. Too many teams at regionals get too worked up into who's there, who's not, and trying to make the top five. Our mindset is we don't care who's there, we're going to win the tournament. We're going to play the best we can play."
Illinois tees it up in the first round Thursday at 8:20 a.m. off the No. 10 tee and will be playing alongside members of No. 4 seed SMU and No. 5 seed Kent State. In addition to those two squads, the Illini are joined in the regional by top-seeded Texas (No. 5 in Golfstat rankings), No. 2 Arkansas, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 7 Liberty, No. 8 Tulsa, No. 9 Kentucky, No. 10 Colorado, No. 11 Indiana, No. 12 UNC-Wilmington, No. 13 UMKC and No. 14 Alabama State. Chris Gilbert (Kansas), Mitchell McLeroy (Stephen F. Austin), Pep Angles (Central Arkansas), Patrick Newcomb (Murray State) and Paul McConnell (Texas-Arlington) will be competing as individuals.
The Illini reached the NCAA Championships last season by tying for third at the NCAA Norman (Okla.) Regional, they placed second at the 2011 NCAA Wolf Run Regional, fifth at the 2010 NCAA Washington Regional, third at the 2009 NCAA Northeast Regional and third at the 2008 NCAA Central Regional. Illinois also advanced to NCAA Championships in 2002 and 2003, meaning Small has led the Illini to the national finals in seven of his 12 seasons at the helm.
Texas most recently edged the Cowboys by four strokes at the weather-shortened Big 12 Championships in Hutchinson, Kan., April 22-24, with Longhorn freshman Brandon Stone beating OSU junior Talor Gooch by three strokes for medalist honors. Arkansas finished sixth at the 54-hole SEC Championships on April 21, 20 strokes behind champion Alabama, while SMU took second at the Conference USA championships, three shots behind champion Houston.
Kent State won the MAC Championships, while Liberty finished second at the Big South Championships. Tulsa was sixth at the C-USA Championships, Kentucky placed 13th at the SEC Championships and Colorado was 10th at the Pac-12 Championships. Indiana tied for fourth at Big Ten Championships, UNCW won the Colonial Athletic Association Championships, UMKC won the Summit League championship and Alabama State won the Southwestern Athletic Conference title.
Arkansas is ranked No. 13 by Golfstat, OSU is No. 16, SMU is No. 21, Kent State is No. 28, the Illini stand at No. 32, Liberty is No. 40 and Tulsa is at No. 45 to round out teams in the top 50.
In head-to-head competition, Illinois is 10-6 against the field, including a 6-1 mark this spring. During the spring portion of the season, only Texas has finished ahead of the Illini in a tournament, which occurred when the Longhorns won the Insperity Augusta State Invitational on April 7. Illinois has finished ahead of Arkansas, SMU, Kent State, Kentucky and Indiana in events this season, but also has finished behind Texas, Arkansas, OSU, SMU and Indiana in different tournaments.
"This golf course is difficult, from what I've heard," Small said. "We've never been there, but it's hard and it's going to be a survival test. The practice round is very, very important. You have to get a feel for the course and get acclimated as quickly as you can. It's Arkansas' home course. Oklahoma State's not too far away. SMU and Texas are down there in their region. We got a tough draw, so we're going to have to go in there and play well. Getting comfortable and playing from a position of strength is very important."
Texas' Stone is the top individual in the field, ranked No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. The Longhorns' Cody Gribble is next at No. 21, Arkansas' Sebastian Cappelen is No. 26 and Kent State's Corey Conners is No. 32. SMU's Bryson Dechambeau is No. 35, Oklahoma State's Gooch is No. 36 and OSU's Jordan Niebrugge is No. 43. OSU's Ian Davis is No. 45, KSU's Taylor Pendrith is No. 47 and Illinois' Thomas Pieters is No. 54.
"Our goal is to continue the momentum from Big Tens," Small said. "It's been a couple of weeks ago, but we did play well. We take pride in being challenged by tougher golf courses; we like that. Hopefully that mindset shows itself again. If you go in there nervous and anxious and indecisive, trying to make the top five, it's a long week. But we're young. We have two sophomores who have been to regionals once, two freshmen who have never been to regionals and a junior Thomas Pieters). We're still young, which is an exciting time for a coach and a program, but you're never sure what's going to happen."
The Illini will use the same roster for the NCAA Regional that carried them to their fifth-straight conference title: Pieters, sophomores Alex Burge and Brian Campbell, and freshmen Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry.
The NCAA Regional's second round begins Friday at 8 a.m., with the final round teeing off at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday.
Burge Becomes Third Illini to Reach U.S. Open Sectional Qualifying
Illini sophomore Alex Burge became the third member of the Illini team to reach the sectional qualifier stage of the U.S. Open qualifying process by carding a two-under-par 69 at Illini Country Club in Springfield, Ill. Illinois senior Mason Jacobs earned the first alternate spot with an even-par 71.
Burge joins Illini junior Thomas Pieters and head coach Mike Small in the sectional qualifying stage, which will be on June 3. Burge and Small will play at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., while Pieters will be at Springfield Country Club in Springfield, Ohio.