For much of this season, Wichita State golf coach Grier Jones felt as if he couldn’t fix the problems plaguing the Shockers – mostly the team’s physical and emotional maturity.
At the end of the year, the problems – and the players – fixed themselves.
WSU won its seventh straight Missouri Valley Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA postseason for the 12th time since 2001. The Shockers begin West Regional play Thursday in Eugene, Ore. as the No. 12 seed among 13 teams.
“It was just one of those years where it was hard getting everybody to tournaments and hard to get them focused on what they’re supposed to be doing,” Jones said. “I thought the guys we took to the conference tournament focused pretty well, and probably for the first time this year, we finished well. We played the last three holes of the tournament well, and that’s the only reason we won.”
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Even the MVC tournament showed what an uphill climb the year has been. Last spring, WSU won the tournament by 32 strokes; this year, the Shockers held on to top Illinois State by three shots.
Jones labored to find the right mix of players to take to each tournament, and the process was sometimes just as difficult for the golfers. Some were made to sit out because of academic issues or “personal problems,” according to Jones, and a roster that includes two seniors was often unable to produce week-to-week consistency.
Those troubles stretched deep into the season, as WSU finished last at the Mississippi State tournament last month and 11th of 15 at Purdue the following week. There were times, like when the Shockers claimed second place in a 14-school event in Florida in mid-March, when it appeared WSU’s collective talent would permanently emerge, but good weeks were often followed by multiple rough ones.
“We had a tough time, maybe not so much with golf, but with the other stuff,” Jones said. “We had a tough time getting the right guys to the tournaments. It just seems like somebody’s having some personal problems, where someone is not taking care of their business, or their homework or whatever, and we have to take somebody else.
“ ... The kids are struggling to settle in and learn what college is all about, learn the rules. That’s a little frustrating, but you also know it’s not going to work your way every year. Some years just aren’t going to be right, and you do the best you can in those years. You try to get the kids through it, and you get a little older and a little smarter and a little more focused.”
Even though WSU isn’t a favorite in Eugene, winning the conference showed an ability to persevere and a refusal to accept that it wasn’t the Shockers’ year.
Leading the Shockers into the regional has been senior Chandler Rusk, who has embraced his leadership role of late. Rusk has been WSU’s best scorer in the last three tournaments, including a final-round 70 at the MVC championships.
Rusk’s teammates have been following his lead, as during the conference tournament three players trimmed at least six strokes from their previous event.
“I think we had some guys play really well down the stretch,” Jones said. “Chandler and Louis (Cohen Boyer) have played pretty well all year long, but the other guys were young and they struggled from time to time. Those guys did a better job of finishing. It’s about being prepared, preparing yourself.
“We as a team this year have not always been the most focused and the most dedicated. Later in the spring, the guys figured out they weren’t playing up to their capabilities, and the work ethic has gotten a little bit better toward the end. Obviously I didn’t push the right buttons the first part of the year, and I think the work we did earlier in the spring paid off in the conference (tournament).”