USF needed to place among the top-five teams of the NCAA Regional Golf tournament in Kissimmee this week to progress to the national championship in Oklahoma.
Fifty-four holes and three days later, the Bulls’ season came to a close Wednesday, as they the cut by eight strokes and placed eighth in the tournament.
“Gutted for our guys today,” coach Steve Bradley said in a tweet Wednesday. “I’m disappointed for them, sad for them, proud of them, and love them. I’m honored to be their coach. Thank you for a great year @USFMGolf.”
Despite winning the AAC title for the fourth consecutive season, Bradley said he was not expecting such a successful season this year. Simply playing in the NCAA regional was impressive to the Bulls’ coach.
“I wasn’t sure how good we were going to be after losing a four-year senior in Rigel Fernandes,” Bradley said. “I’ve been very impressed, very pleased. I’d say pleasantly surprised.”
Fernandes was a four-year staple for the Bulls and was consistently one of the team’s top performers. He won Dubai’s Under-18 tournament at the age of 9. He was a talented player who was going to be tough to replace.
Stepping up for USF was Chilean native Claudio Correa, who was unanimously chosen as the AAC player of the year. The senior notched this on his list of accolades that included the AAC freshman of the year in 2015 and his three all-conference designations.
“I wasn’t playing very good last year,” Correa said. “My swing wasn’t at its best. This winter when I went back home I worked on my swing with my coach in Chile really hard and we made some big changes that made me more consistent and hit the ball better.”
Correa was in the lineup for NCAA regionals for each of the past four seasons. He led the Bulls in the Kissimmee regional with a 14th-place finish and captured an individual title at the AAC Tournament.
“He’s such a good kid,” Bradley said of Correa. “He smiles all the time and he’s the first guy I’ve had a chance to coach for four years. It’s been an absolute privilege to have him on the team with the way he is with his teammates, recruits and the way he conducts himself in the classroom, on the course and in life. He embodies what you want in a student-athlete on the golf team. I couldn’t be more proud to be his coach for four years.”
Through the first two rounds, the Bulls were in fourth place and would have earned their spot in the NCAA championship tournament had they kept their position. USF faltered after posting a 289 team score on the third and final day of competition.
“We’ve had a very good run,” Bradley said. “We’ve been fortunate to play really well at the right times and we’ve had three really good seasons. We didn’t really have a good season last year, but we still won the conference championship.”
According to Bradley, most of the team’s success this season came from the four seniors pushing each other to play better.
“We are a small group,” Correa said. “We’re only eight guys so that makes us be very close to each other….We are cheering for each other, but at the same time, we want to beat each other, so I think that’s something that’s made us better.”
The four seniors who represented USF in Kissimmee were joined by sophomore Kyle Flexsenhar who has the potential to become a major part of the team next year.
“Kyle really stepped up in the fall and we had another sophomore, Andre Leveque, who played a couple of events for us,” Bradley said.
The season and four years of dominance in the AAC comes to a close for Bradley and his team with the core group of four seniors leaving. Bradley will look to the young talent on his team to build another group of AAC champions.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a dynasty,” Bradley said. “But we’ve certainly played pretty well these last four years.”