After seeing the way they lost to last year’s eventual national champion, USC Aiken’s golfers know what it takes to get back on top.
In May, the Pacers advanced to the match play portion of the NCAA Division II Championships. There, they struggled on the back nine in their quarterfinal match and lost to Nova Southeastern.
“We had it in control through the front nine as a team. It all seemed to crumble on the back nine,” senior Matt Atkins said. “That just made us realize we can do it. We have a strong team.”
USC Aiken is looking to pick up where it left off when it begins its fall season today at the Invitational at the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, S.C. The three-round tournament runs through Tuesday.
After a brief absence from the top of the Division II golf world, the Pacers have emerged as one of this season’s title contenders. USC Aiken returns all five players off last season’s postseason squad, and 10 of the 12 players on the roster are upperclassmen.
“Everybody’s improving,” senior J.P. Solis said. “If everybody plays their best we’re going to have some pretty good results.”
USC Aiken dominated Division II when it won three consecutive national championships from 2004-06. After the departure of All-Americans Scott Brown and Dane Burkhart from those teams, the Pacers saw a bit of a dropoff. Then, coach Michael Carlisle got sick in the spring of 2008. It took several years for the program to recover, and last season was a mixed bag.
USC Aiken posted three runner-up showings and also recorded four finishes outside the top 10. In late March, Carlisle finally settled on a lineup of Atkins (who posted a team-best 72.5 stroke average), Solis, Hayden Letien, Gaines Milliner and Taylor Wellborn. That starting squad won the Bearcat Invitational before losing a playoff two weeks later to UNC Pembroke at the Peach Belt Conference Championship.
In May, USC Aiken finished fifth in the regionals to earn a spot back in the Division II Championship.
“We steadily got better,” Carlisle said. “We were so-so in the fall and kind of so-so in the spring and dipped down and didn’t play real well. We finally got a lineup of players that worked well.”
Carlisle said this year’s team reminds him of the squad from the national championship years. While Atkins and Solis sit at the top of the lineup – just like when Brown and Burkhart locked down the top two spots their final three seasons – Carlisle said this team is also well-rounded at the back end.
“This team’s pretty deep,” he said. “One through five can win a tournament. And one through five can shoot 66 at any time. That’s the way those (national championship) teams were.”