News & ToursApril 26, 2011

A reason to love and hate conference championships

With three of the team's golfers, Jack Fiscus, Cole Chelle and Korbin Kuehn, sitting behind the 18th green at Primm Valley GC in the Nevada desert last week, their final rounds already complete, the University of Missouri at Kansas City men's squad had all but clinched its first Summit League title. Even so J.W. VanDenBorn wasn't about to let his guard down, not when he was so close to finally accomplishing what he had set out to do almost eight years ago upon taking over as the men's coach at his alma mater. And not after what he and his team, the Kangaroos, had experienced the previous three years.

UM-KC Summit photo.jpg

You see in 2008 UMKC had the lead at the conference championship entering the final round only to lose to Western Illinois. In 2009 it led after the first and second rounds only to lose to Oral Roberts. In 2010 it led again after the first round only to lose to Oral Roberts on the last putt of the tournament. And the day before, Fiscus' first-round score had been thrown out after incorrectly marking his ball.

Photo by UMKC Athletics/MSH Photography

Not surprisingly, then, it wasn't until the scorecards for his final two players, __Viktor Mikaelsson __and Will Robson, were double checked and signed that VanDenBorn finally exhaled, the team having shot a four-under 860 for a 10-shot victory.

"It was one of those things where you're thinking did this really just happen," VanDenBorn said by phone a few days later. "I stepped away from the scorers table and just took a minute to reflect for a second and I broke down. I was overcome with emotion. The guys were obviously very excited. It was quite the embrace for a few minutes. It was great for everybody."

UMKC has roughly 8,000 undergrads and a golf history that dates back to only the 1990s. The Kangaroos aren't going to win a NCAA title, at least not in the near future. But earning a league title, being a champion and claiming the school's first berth into the NCAA regionals, well that might have been just as big a deal.

VanDenBorn's group finished no worse than fifth all fall and returned to the course after the winter break with similar success. Yet the season suddenly went sideways late last month when the Kangaroos caught a collective cold (literally and figuratively) before heading to a tournament in Little Rock, Ark., and finished 15th. In their final tune-up before the conference championship, the Kangaroos flopped rather than hopped again, finishing T-12.

"We were just a different team," VanDenBorn said, unable to truly explain what went on. "We didn't have our mojo anymore."

As the rest of the conference arrived at Primm Valley assuming UMKC was the prohibitive favorite, VanDenBorn admitted he wasn't sure what squad he was taking. And he couldn't help but think, why now?

When you're a school that competes in a mid-major conference, three rounds in April often determine how you'll remember the previous seven months of work. You can argue there might actually be more pressure than playing in a marquee league, as the conference championship is an all-or-nothing proposition. Win and you make it to the postseason. Lose and call it a year, or for some players maybe even a career.

"I talked to my father and a couple of the people I consult with and I said, I'm just going to let it go and not worry about it,' " VanDenBorn said of his mindset entering the tournament. "Then, during the practice round, when we got on the range and we started hitting shots, it was like we clicked back to what we had. The demeanor of the guys, their approach … my assistant and I kind of looked at each other and thought, we're OK."

The morning of the final round, VanDenBorn gathered his guys for a last minute pep talk.

"I told them I've been here the last three years and obviously you know my teams have been beaten. Yet I know even getting beat the last three years, it's a hell of a lot more fun to wake up on Tuesday morning and know you've got a shot to win it than to go out there and try to shoot a good round to finish fourth or fifth. And so they had to make the decision whether they wanted to have fun with [the pressure] or whether they wanted to be intimidated or be afraid of it."

Their answer was clear: a 68 for Mikaelsson, 69 for Kuehn, 70s from Robson and Chelle and a 72 for Fiscus, good for a 11-under 277 final-day showing.

The frustrating thing for a person like me who chronicles college golf is how much of a team's value do you place in what it does in one three-round tournament rather than over the course of an entire season?

I know the tournament's outcome, so perhaps this is probably moot. But in making sense of everything that goes on in the conference championship season, my mind wonders a simple question: Would the VanDenBorn's team be any less of a group had things not gone their way at Primm Valley?

The answer is no. But they are heck of a lot happier that it did.

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