PARIS, FRANCE - How can one reasonably call winning the Atlantic Coast Conference in any sport disappointing? I’m sure, at the beginning of the season, most would be just fine with that result. Yet, it’s impossible to shake that empty feeling. Coach Bruce Heppler’s teams are annually not just competitive, but elite. So what happened? And, more importantly, will it happen again next year?
For the past two months or so on this side of the pond, there’s been an interesting snag when writing these non-revenue program spotlights. Simply put, ramblinwreck.com hasn’t worked over here in Europe, thanks to some recent privacy decrees from the European Union. Thanks to some VPN gymnastics, it has all worked out so far. However, that is no longer an issue thanks to the brand-new website. If you haven’t checked it out yet, give one of the hyperlinks a click. It’s pretty sharp. But, anyways, this week we’re looking at golf.
Last year, Tech’s top five players consisted of senior Chris Petefish, sophomores Tyler Strafaci, Luke Schniederjans, and Andy Ogletree, and freshman Noah Norton. These men combined to play 159 of Tech’s 189 rounds across eleven tournaments. In the four weekends of the fall season, Tech managed to take home first place honors twice, at the Carpet Capital Collegiate and the Franklin American Mortgage Intercollegiate. Their lowest finish was fourth, in the Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate, an annual competition hosted by the Yellow Jackets and considered one of the finest events in collegiate golf. The field is consistently stacked with NCAA Championship contenders on an acclaimed golf course in Alpharetta. The showing by the Jackets at their own invitational may have been the lowest, but it was against top-tier national competition.
In the spring slate, the Jackets played five more weekends before the start of postseason play. While Tech only took home one trophy in the spring, at the General Hackler Championship, again, their lowest finish on any given weekend was fourth, and spent the vast majority of the year in the top five in the polls. Things were looking good for the Jackets heading into the conference championship.
Indeed, the Jackets stuck to their script against stiff competition from no. 15 Clemson and the rest of the conference, relying on their broad base of quality depth, rather than living or dying on the fortunes of one overwhelming star. For the seventeenth time since joining the conference, and the ninth in the past twelve seasons, Georgia Tech men’s golf took home the conference championship. Petefish began the 18th hole on the final day with the Jackets just one shot ahead of no. 15 Clemson, but managed a birdie, locking down the victory for the Institute. Strafaci, after the Tigers were able to take the lead on the front nine holes, shot his way to a 68 on the round, highlighted by nailing birdies on four of the first five hole on the back half. He and Schniederjans tied for twelfth and were the top finishers for the Jackets. The Jackets had just one round with a player finishing higher than a 74, which speaks volumes about their depth. However, that would come to haunt them a few weeks later in Raleigh.
The regional was, quite frankly, a disaster for the favorite, Tech. For the third straight season, Tech failed to advance from of the regional final, and fell by a single stroke for the second year in a row. Though the season saw three tournament wins, which is above the historical average of 2.30 per season on the Flats, and the Jackets, who, of course, did win the Institute’s only conference championship this year, the result was, in the end, unsatisfying. An ignominious end for the acclaimed ACC champions. Though Tech’s vaunted tremendous depth is so important, the regional probably could have used someone to step up and put the team on his back. No one played poorly. No one played tremendously. And, just like that, we wonder what could have been as we anticipate next year.
Golf Results 2017-18
|September 8-10||Carpet Capital Collegiate||-14||1st|
|September 22-24||Maui Jim Intercollegiate||-6||2nd|
|October 8-10||Franklin American Mortgage Intercollegiate||-12||1st|
|October 20-22||Golf Club of Georgia Collegiate||-18||T-4th|
|February 1-3||Amer Ari Invitational||-22||T-5th|
|February 18-20||Puerto Rico Classic||7||4th|
|March 10-11||General Hackler Championship||-16||1st|
|March 18-20||Valspar Colegiate Invitational||E||4th|
|April 7-8||Cabarrus County Irish Creek Collegiate||15||3rd|
|April 20-22||Atlantic Coast Conference Championship||-29||1st|
|May 14-16||NCAA Raleigh Regional||-2||6th|
The good news is that this team isn’t going anywhere. They return four of their top five players from last season. To boot, none of those four athletes will be seniors, either. The pressure is off of recruits and new players to the lineup when experienced veterans bear the brunt of the load. That’s not to say Tech’s depth is nonexistent, either. With only Petefish graduating, Tech is in very good shape for the coming season. Georgia Tech golf isn’t just going to be alright, they’re going to be very, very good yet again. Each of the returners is ranked nationally, and in no. 71 Schniederjans, no. 86 Ogletree, no. 54 Strafaci, and no. 57 Norton, Tech brings back exactly two thirds of its rounds played last year (other than Petefish, Tyler and Jacob Joiner and Michael Pisciotta combined for 30 rounds) from four of its top five players. This summer, Strafaci has been making waves, qualifying for the U.S. Open and even beating or matching four former Open champions, to boot, and will be joined by Norton and Ogletree in the U.S. Amateur.
It’s a remarkably similar story in the head coach’s office. In twenty three years on the Flats, Heppler has been the model of consistency. Since 1995, Tech has seen turnover in the athletic director’s office, football coaches come and go, the ascent and descent of Paul Hewitt, a women’s tennis national championship, the rise and fall and, it seems, rise again of the softball team, the freaking Olympics - the list could go on and on. Heppler, who has led the Jackets within a hair’s breadth of a national title himself three times in his twenty three season, is arguably matched only by baseball’s Danny Hall and his three College World Series appearances and consistent postseason play, though is probably ahead of even Hall after back to back years of not making the NCAA Regionals. Heppler’s steady hand at the helm has brought excellence in recruiting, on the courses, and, as is so vital here at the Institute, in the classroom as well, as one of the finest teams in the entire nation in the annual academic progress report. From his first recruit, Matt Kuchar, on down to the exciting development of Strafaci, he has consistently churned out successful professional golfers and fine young men. Heppler’s teams may have missed the cut in the regional this year, but Tech will be back in the hunt again next year.
For a team that didn’t lose much, they add some nice pieces to an already solid roster. Bartley Forrester, the most recent addition and a former baseball player who took up golf only relatively recently, is ranked 76th nationally, and joins Connor Howe, ranked 51st nationally, as well as Luka Kauralic. Forrester got looks from the Ivy Leagues as well, while Howe and Kauralic have had extremely solid senior seasons since they signed with the Jackets.
So, despite their conference championship, Tech has some unfinished business, it seems. There are two seasons left of Strafaci, Norton, Schniederjans, and Ogletree all playing together, and that fifth starting spot is open to any of the three newcomers or one of the existing players on the roster. The Jackets are going to be fine. They will compete for the conference title, as they seemingly always do under Heppler, and, depending on the continued growth of Norton, especially, we could be talking about having two Jackets in the U.S. Open around this time next summer. Some very exciting things could happen in the meantime.
The Jackets are currently ranked no. 6/no. 8, depending on your favorite poll, and have not yet released their 2018-19 schedule. They will, however, host their annual invitational at the Golf Club of Georgia in the fall October 19th-21st, against what will again be one of the best slates of regular season competition in the nation.
Coming up next week: Swimming and Diving
Stay tuned for more investigation into the state of non-revenue sports, mild soapbox editorializing, and, hopefully, some productive discourse to get us through the summer. As always, fell free to leave any questions, comments, and feedback below.