USC Aiken's golf team is already in its national championship tournament. Augusta State's has one more big step to take.
The Pacers of Aiken, ranked 10th nationally, begin play in the 72-hole NCAA Division II tournament at the Turlock Country Club in Turlock, Calif., on Tuesday.
Augusta State, ranked 12th in the MasterCard NCAA Division I poll, is in the talent-rich, 20-team NCAA East Regional in Moosic, Pa. Eight of the teams in the field are ranked in the top 20.
The Jaguars begin the 54-hole journey Thursday at the Glenmaura National Golf Course. The top 11 teams will qualify for the NCAA Championship held May 31-June 3 in Auburn. Ala.
Augusta State's traveling team is headed by sophomore Jamie Elson (71.00 stroke average), the ASU male athlete of the year. He'll be joined by freshman Oliver Wilson (71.81), sophomores Michael Webb (75.30) and Robert Duck (75.30) and freshman Jay Haas Jr. (76.60).
Augusta State has had an exceptional season despite the fact that Duck has been in a slump for most of the year.
"He's still a work in progress as far as getting it all the way back," said Augusta State coach Jay Seawell. "If he does get it back, we literally can beat anybody. I know all the talent in the country. If he gets his game into last year's order, people better look out."
As for USC Aiken, this is the eighth time in the past nine years the Pacers have made the national tournament. Aiken was the national championship runner-up in 1995, 1996 and 1999.
The last time the national championship tournament was held at Turlock was in 1993. Aiken finished fifth that year.
"I know the course, and with the players we're taking out there, it's a real good match," said Aiken coach Michael Carlisle.
His team will consist of sophomore Matt Avinger (74.68), freshman Scott Robbins (74.89), senior Gary Shankland (75.54), freshman Scott Usher (76.74) and junior Mikael Mustonen (77.50).
Shankland has been Aiken's top player in the spring after a horrendous fall.
"He shot in the 80s a lot in the fall, but this spring his average has been right around par," Carlisle said. "He's carried us a lot."
USC Aiken won two tournaments in a season Carlisle calls "consistently below average. We won a couple Division II tournaments, but when we got a chance to play in Division I tournaments, we played really poorly."
That hardly matters now, said Carlisle, whose team finished third and fifth in its past two events, the latter being the NCAA South Regional.
"I've learned over the last few years if your goal is to win the national championship, all that matters is you play well in that tournament," Carlisle said. "Some years we played well during the season, but didn't peak at the end. Last year we didn't play great, just OK, during the season, and any other year we would have won the national championship, if Florida Southern didn't play absolutely great. This year's team is doing the same thing. If we do win the national championship, a lot of people who have seen us play earlier this year will be impressed with the way we turned things around."
Top-ranked Georgia Tech is the favorite in the NCAA Division I East Regional. The other top-20 teams are No. 2 Clemson, No. 4 Georgia, No. 12 Augusta State, No. 14 North Carolina State, No. 15 North Florida, No. 16 Florida and No. 18 Auburn.
The other two regionals in the country are the Central and West.
"Our regional is definitely a lot stronger than the other two," Augusta State coach Jay Seawell said. "I was chatting with (Clemson coach) Larry Penley and he agreed the Central and Western regional is not comparable to the East regional."
Augusta State, which won three times this season and finished in the top five in nine of its 12 tournaments, is seeking its sixth NCAA Championship appearance in the last eight years.
"We've played very well all year and been very consistent because we have good players," Seawell said. "We're going there with the idea of winning the East regional, not just getting through it. That's the kind of team we have."
Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851.
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