Wichita State’s athletic school year is running like a putt gaining momentum as it rolls downhill for birdie. Volleyball to the Sweet 16. Women’s basketball in the NCAA Tournament. Men’s basketball in the Final Four.
The men’s golfers want to join that parade of national success. The Shockers begin play in the NCAA Regional in Baton Rouge, La., on Thursday. They are seeded 11th in the 13-team field and the top five advance to the 30-team NCAA Championships beginning May 28 in Atlanta.
“We want to be part of that, too,” senior Rafael Becker said. “Everybody really, really wants to take the next step.”
WSU is making its eighth straight regional appearance. It last advanced to the NCAA Championships in 2004. The seniors and juniors are experienced NCAA golfers and are pointing to this season as their time to make the final field. A year ago, they finished the first round tied for fourth before slipping and finishing ninth, seven shots from fifth. In 2011, a team with three sophomores and two freshmen finished 12th. In 2010, WSU finished ninth and former Shocker Dustin Garza missed the individual cut by one stroke.
Last year’s experience at Stanford taught the Shockers that positioning can change quickly and the margin for error in a talented field is small.
“It’s truly not over until the 54th hole,” Becker said. “People say every shot counts. At regionals, it’s almost like every shot counts twice.”
After an uneven spring, the Shockers dominated the Missouri Valley Conference Championships to secure the automatic bid to the regional. They won by a record 32 shots.
“At conference, we all came together and that’s best we’ve played, probably, in the four years I’ve been here,” senior Hunter Sparks said. “I really like our chances. We’re all playing good at the right time.”
The Shockers, led by Becker, grabbed four of the top five spots in the MVC tournament. Even with that dominance — WSU led by 24 shots entering the final round — the Shockers closed with a strong score.
“We haven’t been able to finish many of our tournaments,” Becker said. “A lot of times you tend to relax on those days, where you have a huge lead. We played as if we were tied, or behind.”
Sparks was named MVC Golfer of the Year and Becker earned medalist honors. Sophomore Louis Cohen Boyer and junior Calvin Pearson tied for third in the MVC meet. The Nos. 4 and No. 5 players have been inconsistent and Jones required senior Tyler Gann and junior Chandler Rusk to play 54 holes for the fifth spot in the regional. Rusk won.
“Normally that isn’t something you want to be doing — qualifying for a spot after the conference and before the regionals,” WSU coach Grier Jones said. “But those two guys have not played as well as they’re capable of and I felt to be fair to both we’d just play 54 holes and the one who wins is going to the regional.”
The regional is loaded with SEC schools, including GolfWeek’s national No. 2-ranked Alabama, No. 13 Florida and No. 17 LSU, the host at the University Club of Baton Rouge.
“We did play real well (at the MVC tournament), and we were the prohibitive favorite,” Jones said. “Going into this tournament, we’re not the favorite, so we have to play better than we are to make it all the way through. We’ve got some real capable guys and we’ve got a lot of experience. We certainly have been there before.”