Future's bright for Small's squad
MILTON, Ga. — As a result of an extended stay coaching Illinois at the NCAA golf championships, Mike Small hasn’t been able to work on his own game.
Small, whose Illini finished as the national runners-up to Alabama after a 4-1 loss in Sunday’s championship match at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course, will have a pretty good idea where he’s at Monday when he takes part in a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in St. Louis, less than 24 hours after an emotional week with his Illini came to an end.
“(My game) hasn’t been bad; it’s actually gotten better this spring,” he said. “Everybody else has been preparing and competing. I’m supposed to be paired with Mark O’Meara, and he’s been playing and competing on the Senior PGA and the tour event in Iowa and playing every day. I’ve got to be mentally strong if I’m gonna do this. If I’m not mentally strong, because I’m not physically prepared, it’s gonna be a wasted day.”
Regardless of what happens Monday, nothing will shake the memories Small and Illinois crafted the previous six days in their quest for the program’s first national championship, which would have been the third for a Northern program since 1979. The Illini knocked off third-ranked and defending national champion Texas in Friday’s quarterfinal and followed that up with a stunner against top-ranked Cal on Saturday.
But No. 2 Alabama and its boisterous contingent of fans proved too much.
“It was one heck of an experience for these young kids,” Small said of his team, which this season won a fifth straight Big Ten crown and the program’s first NCAA regional title.
“As a coach, I’m proud of them. I told them that, and I was proud of them. We don’t gauge our kids on what we shoot, we judge ourselves on how our body language is, how we play to our strengths of optimism and not fear.”
That fearlessness and strength is part of how Small’s club captivated the golf world over the last week and had Illinois fans of all sports following every shot via social media and NCAA.com. Plenty of Illini folks made the trip to the Atlanta area in an effort to witness history. Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce and athletic director Mike Thomas were among the folks wearing Orange and Blue on the course Sunday.
“To see our guys come down and get the support and the friends we had there, and for the Illini to back us like that meant a lot to me, to the program and to the kids,” Small said.
As impressive as the Illini turnout was, their contingent was overwhelmed by the 800 or so Crimson Tide fans, who made the short drive to Georgia. If you weren’t sure what was happening on the various holes, all you had to do was wait a few minutes and listen.
“It was kind of easy to know how things were going because Alabama had such a huge crowd out there. You could hear every roar on the course,” said Illinois sophomore Brian Campbell, who fell 3 and 2 to Alabama’s Scott Strohmeyer a day after beating No. 1 Michael Kim from Cal. “Being in the thick of things was really fun. It’s a shame we couldn’t have won.”
Illinois’ lone point Sunday came from junior Thomas Pieters, who played his final collegiate match. The 2012 NCAA champion, who beat Justin Thomas 1-up, is skipping his senior season to try his hand at a professional career.
“He won a national championship individually and got second with the team this year, and nobody can say that,” Small said of the Belgian, who will play his own U.S. Open sectional qualifier Monday in Springfield, Ohio. “He’s also won three Big Ten championships in his three years. He will be missed. He’s such a great person and good kid.”
Even without Pieters, there’s plenty of optimism already for the Illini looking ahead to the 2014 campaign. Campbell returns, as do promising freshmen Thomas Detry, who lost 6 and 5 to the world’s third-ranked amateur in Alabama’s Bobby Wyatt on Sunday, and Charlie Danielson, an All-American who lost on the 18th hole Sunday to Trey Mullinax. Sophomore Alex Burge, who will join Small at qualifying Monday in St. Louis, also returns.
“To see that we could do this gives us a lot of confidence we can take into next year and hopefully take the trophy home,” Campbell said. “We have this notch under our belts, and we know we can contend with the best teams and the best players in the country.”
It’s going to take more than showing up next season, and Small already has planted that seed in his players’ heads following this historic season.
“We’ve got some work to do; we lose our best player. But we lost Luke Guthrie last year,” he said. “I told the guys they’re strong people inside, they’re talented, they’re competitors. We just need to keep chiseling away and keep getting better at the things we need to get better at.”
Sunday wasn’t the first time Illinois came tantalizingly close to winning an NCAA team title. In the last 10 years, four other Illini outfits have finished second:
A magical run ended with a 75-70 loss to North Carolina in St. Louis. “Of course I’m sad — I’m sad that it’s over, that we lost,” star guard Deron Williams said. “But we did great things this year. We got to the Final Four. We played for the national championship.”
Yoshi Hayasaki’s team, led by Justin Spring, finished less than a point behind host Oklahoma. “We battled throughout the meet and we still thought we could win it in the end,” Hayasaki said. “We never gave up despite the injuries and obstacles our team faced.”
In their second title match in five seasons, the Kevin Anderson-led Illini lost to host Georgia 4-0. “We’re in this to contend for a national title. We came up one match short this year,” Illinois coach Brad Dancer said.
The longest NCAA run in program history ended with a 3-1 loss to UCLA in San Antonio.“It’s been our goal since the beginning of the season to win the national championship, so it’s obviously tough for us not to do that,” Illini outside hitter Colleen Ward said. “But we are proud of how far we’ve come.”