FLOURTOWN, Pa. — The feeling never gets old for Mike Small. Not even after replicating it for the fifth time.
The Illinois men's golf coach has touted a Big Ten champion squad in each of his last four seasons, a streak that reached five Sunday afternoon when the Illini finished five strokes ahead of second-place Purdue with a three-round score of 868 to seize the title.
"The Big Ten Conference is the most powerful conference in college I believe," Small said following Sunday's victory, which also marked the program's 10th title in their past 11 seasons. "There's a high competition in golf, and it's fun to be in the middle of that.
"To compete against these schools and to have this success makes all the effort worth it."
Illinois entered the weekend as the prohibitive favorite to capture the championship and once again rose above the rest like in previous seasons, but that didn't mean these Illini were very similar at all to the squads that came before them. With no seniors, Small deemed this season's roster the youngest he's coached in a long time.
That wasn't a problem, though.
"The last few years, we've had future PGA players and All-Americans," said Small, referring to last year's stars and now-professionals Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer. "This year, it's been by committee. We've been preaching depth all year and hopefully we're starting to see that."
Adrien Dumont de Chassart certainly did his part in bringing that to fruition, as the freshman shot a third-round 66 to claim co-medalist honors alongside Minnesota sophomore Angus Flanagan. The Belgium native offered a glimpse of his potential, according to Small, when he won his first individual title at the Tar Heel Intercollegiate in March, and his follow-up victory came at just the right time for Illinois.
"He's learning the game," Small said. "These young guys are coming in with talent, but they have to learn how to play tournament golf. When you combine coachability with talent, that's when you see a steep curve for improvement."
A fellow Belgian in junior Giovanni Tadiotto chased Chassart in the individual standings, finishing four strokes behind him to take seventh, while sophomore and Uni High graduate Varun Chopra tied for 11th to round out the Illini's top three.
Small has plenty of kind words for all five members of the rotation, but the juniors in particular impressed him during the league showdown in ways that circle back to the departure of Hardy and Meyer.
"I think our juniors really grew up this week," Small said, "They've been playing in other people's shadows their entire careers here, beneath Nick and Dylan, and then this year they've been trying to figure that out. All three of them are ranked near the top of the Big Ten, but the consistency level hasn't been there.
"(Sunday), they responded and they led. They used their experience from their first three years and previous Big Ten Championships, both Gio and Michael (Feagles)."
Though fourth among the five Illini, Feagles still took a top spot above the majority of the competition by tying for 16th after making birdie on his first hole and twice more on the back nine.
Seeing that type of progress down the stretch only adds to the fulfillment for Small, but he's not fooling himself, either: The league title is theirs, but the job isn't done.
While Illinois earned an automatic bid for the NCAA regionals with Sunday's victory, Small's team is taking aim at the NCAA Championship — specifically when it comes to extending its second-longest active streak of 11 consecutive appearances behind Texas' 12.
"That's something we want to continue," Small said. "Absolutely."