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Bulls enter 2014 season with hopes of a title

USF men’s golf welcomes new faces to the program as they look forward to a new season.

With the graduation of Richard James and the loss of coach Chris Malloy, the USF men’s golf team will look for new leaders to emerge for the 2014 fall season. 

After a strong start to the spring season, when the Bulls finished second in three of their first four tournaments, their momentum dwindled. They rounded out the season finishing 10th or worst in two of their final three events.

“I think pressure got to us a little bit with us playing so well,” junior Chase Koepka said. “You want to make it to the National Championship so bad, and we got caught up in it a little bit.”

Koepka has been USF’s most consistent player over the past year. With six top-10 finishes and one win, he was named an All-American for the first time in his three-year career.

“It’s always a luxury to have an All-American on the team,” USF’s new coach Steven Bradley said. “To have, him helps us out from a confidence point of view. The teammates know that they can count on him and he leads by example.”

Koepka is one of seven returning players from last season, a list which includes senior Trey Valentine who earned a win last season and looks to expand his leadership role with the team going forward.

“I’ve been here longer than anyone else here in the program right now,” Valentine said. “Two of my teammates that came in with me are no longer here; Malloy’s not here, none of the assistant coaches, and so I’m kind of the last man standing. I want to show these guys the right way to do things.”

Valentine has been with USF all four years of his collegiate career, notching 19 top-25 finishes, two wins and the Big East Freshman of the Year award.

USF has added depth to its roster, including freshman Claudio Correa and junior Aksel Olsen who both qualified for the team’s first tournament at Kiawah Island, South Carolina.

“We expect a lot of good things from (Correa) this year,” Koepka said. “He can hit the ball, there’s no doubt about it.  I think by the end of his four years here, he’s going to be something special.”

Olsen is a junior college transfer who played two years at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, Alabama.

“Any time you have two new guys at the beginning of the year, in the starting five, it comes as a surprise,” Bradley said. “I know that those guys are good quality players, but I also know the guys they beat out are also good quality players.”

The biggest change for the Bulls was the addition of Bradley, who coached at Mercer and UF prior to joining the Bulls.

“Coach Malloy had left for Ole Miss and I applied and (USF) reached out to me and brought me down for an interview,” Bradley said. “It kind of happened pretty fast to be honest. I interviewed and had dinner with Athletic Director Mark Harlan on Tuesday and was in negotiation on Thursday.”

In Bradley’s time as assistant coach at UF, the program advanced to three National Championships and also won the SEC Championship in 2011.

Bradley, who hasn’t even completed the move down to Tampa from his home in Georgia, had a familiar view of USF’s performance last year and said it simply underachieved.

“(Bradley) is very process oriented,” sophomore Rigel Fernandes said. “He’s very preparation- and process-minded. He told us in our first team meeting that he would never get on us for poor play. Poor play will happen, but how we handle it and how we prepare for the round is more import to him.”

Fernandes was a bright spot for USF last season, competing in all 10 of USF’s events as a freshman and became only the fifth USF golfer to shoot less than 1.15 strokes over par.

“He’s worked a lot on his short game, at least from what I can tell from playing with him,” Valentine said. “His chipping has improved, his putting has improved and those were both his weak spots. He’s one of the best ball strikers in college and he’s definitely starting to impress me.”

The Bulls will hope to avoid repeating last season when they finished 10th out of 13 teams at the regionals stage of the NCAA tournament, but in order to make it there, they need wins.

“To make it to the National Championship would be great, but I think we just need to win a little bit more,” Koepka said. “I’m hoping that we have at least 3 or 4 tournament wins this season. Our team is deep enough to win and this year I don’t think there’s any question about it; I think we’re a top-10 team by far.”

The journey to the 2014 NCAA Tournament, hosted by USF, begins Friday and continues on through the weekend at the Invitational at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. The Bulls were able to hoist the trophy — their only one of the season— on their last trip to Kiawah.