FRENCH LICK, Ind. — As soon as Illinois wrapped up its fifth consecutive Big Ten championship, Mike Small celebrated with his golfers.
Both current and past.
“Texts, calls, tweets — I’ve heard from a bunch of them,” Small said on the drive home from the Pete Dye Course, where Illinois kept its head-turning streak going with its finest weekend of the season. “It’s kind of cool to know that they all still care. They laid the foundation for this and take pride in this.”
The 72-hole marathon showed Illinois still has a step on its Big Ten competition, no matter how wobbly it has looked this spring. The Illini held off a late Minnesota charge to win by 9 strokes.
Better yet, defending NCAA champ Thomas Pieters bagged the individual title, giving Illinois three consecutive champs (current PGA Tour member Luke Guthrie won in 2011 and ’12).
“It doesn’t compare to winning a national championship, but it’s still pretty cool,” said Pieters, who closed with a 74 to edge teammate Brian Campbell and Minnesota’s Erik Van Rooyen by 5 strokes.
The run of conference titles is approaching a mind-boggling stage. Only Ohio State has produced a longer streak (six in a row in the 1980s). Only Ohio State has more overall championships (23) after Illinois delivered No. 12.
“It never gets old,” Small said.
Even with a young team.
Small’s lineup consisted of two freshmen (Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry), two sophomores (Campbell and Alex Burge) and a junior about to turn pro in Pieters.
“They had a target on their backs. There was some pressure on these guys, a lot of pressure,” Small said. “To come out and answer the bell the way they did with the five in a row hanging over their head, that says a lot about them.”
It wasn’t until Campbell’s birdie at No. 17 on Sunday that Small allowed himself to relax.
Moments later, coach and players were slipping on Big Ten championship T-shirts and posing for pictures.
“I thought we could finish anywhere between fifth place and first,” Small said. “It’s been an up-and-down year. Look at our record: in two of our last three tournaments, we finished 12th.”
Not this weekend.
“The guys really started to figure it out,” Small said. “We’re learning how to handle both the good breaks and the bad breaks.”
Pieters was the only golfer in the 60-man field to finish under par (minus 4). His leadership was as impressive as his short game, Small said.
“I was confident in my team,” Pieters said. “Everything fell into place.”
Campbell had the Illini’s best closing round (even-par 72), one of six players to shoot par or better. Detry, Burge and Danielson finished in the Top 25. And Small put himself in position to win a sixth Big Ten Coach of the Year award, which will be announced Tuesday, giving the Illini contingent plenty to talk about during their traditional pit stop at the Beef House in Covington, Ind.
“They’re all the same,” Small said when asked where No. 5 ranked in the current streak. “But this is rewarding because this is such a young team, and that each guy has had issues and dilemmas to deal with. But they keep delivering.”
Thomas Pieters on Sunday became the 15th Illini to claim Big Ten medalist:
2013 Thomas Pieters
2012 Luke Guthrie
2011 Luke Guthrie
1999 Larry Nuger
1993 Jamie Fairbanks
1989 Steve Stricker
1988 Steve Stricker
1986 Steve Stricker
1982 Mike Chadwick
1962 Mike Toliuszis
1942 James McCarthy
1941 Alex Welsh
1931 Richard Martin
1930 Richard Martin
1923 R.E. Rolfe
Illinois won its 12th Big Ten team title, tying Michigan and Purdue for second-most in league history. The rundown:
2013 French Lick, Ind.
2012 French Lick, Ind.
2011 West Lafayette, Ind.
2010 Independence, Minn.
2009 State College, Pa.
1941 Lake Forest
1940 Columbus, Ohio
1931 Ann Arbor, Mich.