After almost a year away from competition, USC Aiken golf coach Michael Carlisle said he's ready to return.
Stricken with a life-threatening illness in February, Carlisle will make his first tournament appearance since last October when his fourth-ranked Pacers open the 2008-09 season today at the Kiawah Island Invitational at Kiawah Island, S.C.
"I'm looking forward to it," Carlisle said. "I've looked back on all I've been through and I'm real thankful. I'm very fortunate. I have a good life."
Carlisle missed all of USC Aiken's spring events after coming down with Group A strep pneumonia. The illness kept him in the hospital for seven weeks. He then endured two weeks of inpatient rehabilitation, followed by six additional weeks of outpatient rehab.
Carlisle said he's still getting his strength back. Occasionally, he goes to the range and hits mid-irons and will ride a bike or go swimming every evening with his youngest son.
While he was out during the spring, former players Brooks Blackburn and Scott Brown traveled with the golf team and set the lineups. Now, it's Carlisle's turn to figure out his starting five and who will replace the graduated Jeff Goff, last season's Division II medalist. The Pacers also lost Casey Thompson, and added no new players.
USC Aiken will have senior Roberto Diaz, a three-time All-American who led the team last season with a 73.05 stroke average. He'll be traveling to the first tournament with juniors Kevin Grady and Justin Thompson, as well as sophomores J.P. Solis and Ashley Smith.
One wild-card player on the roster is senior Matt Giftos, who helped the Pacers win their last national title in 2006. Giftos lost his desire for the game after that season but has slowly returned, playing in two events last season.
"Everybody knows he has a lot of talent and a lot of ability to succeed," Carlisle said. "He seems to have that desire back. It's a matter of confidence and him trusting himself."
With off-season region realignment, USC Aiken will face bigger obstacles in attempting to win a fourth NCAA Division II championship.
If the Pacers make the Southeast Regional, they'll play in a Super Regional with many of the nation's top teams from last season, including West Florida (No. 1), Florida Southern (No. 3), North Alabama (No. 5), Georgia College & State (No. 6), Nova Southeastern (No. 7), Barry (T-8) and Valdosta State (T-8).
"The good thing is, if you're one of the five teams in our Super Regional advancing, your chances are really good for winning the national championship," Carlisle said, "because you've just played the most difficult tournament of the year."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.