FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Qualifying for the NCAA Championships is becoming old hat for the Illinois men’s golf team.
Heading to nationals as a regional champion? Well, that is something new for the Illini.
Seeded sixth in the Fayetteville Regional, the five-time reigning Big Ten champions captured the first NCAA regional crown in program history Saturday afternoon.
“This is pretty big,” coach Mike Small said after his Illini advanced to nationals for the sixth consecutive year and eighth time in 12 years. “To win a regional is a big deal in college golf.”
Illinois has come close before during Small’s 13-year coaching tenure, placing second in 2003 and 2011, and finishing third three other times.
This time, the Illini would not be denied, firing a 1-over-par 289 — the best round of the day — to finish 3 strokes ahead of host and second-seeded Arkansas in the 54-hole event. Texas, Oklahoma State and Kent State rounded out the top five in the 14-team field and also advanced to the NCAA Championships, which begin May 28 in Atlanta.
“For these guys to rise to the occasion to win this thing is a huge plus for our program,” Small said. “Especially to beat Arkansas on their home course is a huge accomplishment for these kids.”
Kids is indeed the operative word to describe the current Illini. Small’s five-player lineup for regionals included two freshmen and two sophomores along with reigning NCAA champion Thomas Pieters.
In fact, it was the youngsters who led the way. Sophomore Brian Campbell and freshman Thomas Detry tied for second place, while freshman Charlie Danielson shared fifth. Pieters, a junior who will turn pro after the NCAA Championships, tied for 10th.
Small admitted he was concerned entering regionals about how his youthful group would react to the spotlight and pressure.
“But we had the mind-set we were coming in to win this thing,” Small said. “Of course, we’ve had that mind-set in the past, too. For these guys to grow up like this and play like this is so encouraging.”
Campbell (2-under 70) and Detry (72) finished with 214 totals to trail champion Mario Clemens of Southern Methodist by 1 stroke. Danielson (73), the first-round leader, ended up 3 strokes back at 216. Pieters (74) carded a 219 total.
Campbell’s 54-hole score was a career best, while Detry and Danielson each tied career-low scores for a three-round tournament.
Illinois was the only team in its regional to finish with four players in the top 10, a feat Small viewed as all the more impressive because of the challenges posed by the 7,251-yard Blessings Golf Club layout.
“This course is so hard, it’s so demanding,” Small said. “And we saw a lot of adversity all week. But we followed the adversity with some really good play.
“We had the lowest round in two of the three rounds. We were the most consistent team here.”