After the sand had settled at the 2014 NCAA Regionals in San Antonio, Texas, the USF men’s golf team found itself in 10th out of 13 and on its way home much sooner than anticipated.
Dejected, but hungry for redemption, the team made its way back to Tampa with 2015 already on its mind.
With a new lineup of young talent along with new coach Steven Bradley, USF has a different look and mindset heading into the postseason.
“We had a lot of expectations last year, and we kind of let it get to us,” junior Chase Koepka said. “As long as we stay relaxed and stay focused, we’re among the best teams in the country. We don’t need to do anything crazy to win and get to nationals; we just have to play smart golf.”
The Bulls have already tripled their win total from last season, with three golfers taking home trophies so far, but the guys without trophies are just as important.
“We have a really competitive team, and not just the starting five that are playing, but also the guys that aren’t playing,” Bradley said of the team’s depth. “They’ve pushed the starters to continue to work hard and be better and perform.”
In the Bulls’ final tournament before they gear up for postseason play, they edged out North Florida by one stroke for a first-place finish, with sophomore Rigel Fernandes taking home a share of the individual lead.
In the postseason, that one shot could mean advancing or making another early trip home.
“Knowing that a poor course management decision, poor club choice or letting your emotions from a previous shot effect the next is all magnified in the postseason,” Bradley said. “That one shot could affect a lot.”
One player who has spurred the Bulls’ resurgence is freshman Claudio Correa, who earned his first win at the Gator Invitational in his sixth collegiate event.
“He’s good,” Bradley said. “He’s talented, confident and really doesn’t have a flaw in his game. He’s a competitor and has everything and … he’s only a freshman.”
Correa’s win came against some of the stiffest competition the Bulls have faced all season including Vanderbilt and FSU, who are both currently ranked in the top six teams in the country.
Not to be overshadowed by the impressive win, the Chilean native hit the second hole-in-one in his golf career.
“I hit it pretty good and it just kept rolling to the hole,” Correa said. “We got really excited because the last time I hit a hole-in-one was like six years ago, but it was a good experience.”
The Bulls now find themselves in a position to make a run in the postseason, with three wins under their belt and playing their best golf of the season as of late.
“When we’re playing our best, it’s really hard to beat us,” Koepka said. “We’ve had a bunch of different lineup changes this year and it shows just how well everyone’s been playing. Anyone can step in and play at any moment, and for postseason, it’s going to be pretty tough to choose a lineup.”
Koepka said the ultimate goal is to make it to the NCAA Championship at the Concession in Bradenton — his home course.
“Playing at your home course is always a huge advantage,” Koepka said. “There’s so many things that other guys don’t see on a regular basis that we get a chance to get familiar with, but the first goal is to get there.”
By the time the championships roll around May 29, the team, which practices at the Concession at times during the season, will have played the course as much as eight times as a unit. This gives the team a unique advantage over its competitors.
But first, the Bulls must tackle the AAC tournament held in Lecanto from Sunday to Tuesday. From there, they find out what regional they will compete in to qualify for the championships.
Though it seems the Bulls have all the capabilities to avenge last year’s letdown, they must play their best golf of the season over the next month.
“Handling pressure is big,” Koepka said. “We’re going to have a lot of eyes on us. Hosting the National Championship, people expect us to be there, but it’s never a guarantee.”