AIKEN — About the time Gaines Milliner was getting into golf, Scott Brown, Dane Burkhart and their USC Aiken teammates were building a dynasty.
From 2004-06, the Pacers won three consecutive NCAA Division II national championships. Now, USC Aiken is looking to make a run at its fourth title.
The second-ranked Pacers play today in the Division II Championship at The Meadows Golf Course in Allendale, Mich. After 54 holes of medal play this week, the top eight teams advance to match play, with the winner crowned Friday.
“We’ve played good all year,” Milliner said. “I think we consider ourselves one of the best teams there. We expect to make it pretty deep and hopefully win it.”
After USC Aiken reached the pinnacle of Division II golf, the Pacers went through a dry spell. But coach Michael Carlisle rebuilt his program into a national power in recent years. In 2012 and 2013, USC Aiken advanced to the national championships, moving onto match play each year. The Pacers have yet to move past the quarterfinal stage.
This year, USC Aiken is hoping to finally break through at the national championship. During the regular season, the Pacers won three of their 10 tournaments. Then, USC Aiken claimed the rain-shortened Peach Belt Conference Championship, the school’s 10th Peach Belt title in Carlisle’s 24-year reign.
“It’s been a great year,” senior Hayden Letien said. “I don’t think we’ve played to our full potential yet. We’ve had a lot of good rounds and a lot of good tournaments. But I think our best golf is still ahead of us.”
Two weeks ago at the South/Southeast Regional, USC Aiken played its way into contention the first two rounds. The Pacers eventually tied for third place, eight shots behind No. 1 Barry.
“The Super Regional Tournament we just got out of is a stronger field than the one at the national tournament,” Carlisle said. “Everybody in the country knows that. So we’re just going to learn to be patient and take one step at a time.”
The Pacers are led by Englishman Brandon Robinson-Thompson, a junior transfer from Morningside College who leads the team with a 72.42 stroke average. Kyle Godsman, a senior from Scotland, is just behind at 73.58. Letien (74.62) and junior Andrew Ward (74.95), a pair of Palmetto State natives, have been solid in the middle of the lineup. Milliner (75.93), a senior from Aiken, has been steadily improving after missing an extended period after breaking his arm playing basketball Jan. 31, 2013.
“We don’t have one player who’s a liability,” Carlisle said. “They all contribute. They all do their part.”
Robinson-Thompson replaced Matt Atkins, the 2013 Peach Belt Player of the Year. The transition has been a smooth one for someone who shares the same ambition as his teammates: bring another national championship to Aiken.
“Everybody works hard. Everybody has the same goals,” Robinson-Thompson said. “Everybody wants to play and practice just as much as each other.”