__By Ryan Herrington
MILTON, GA.—__There are coaches who are nervous nellies.
And then there is__Bruce Heppler__.
The man who has overseen the Georgia Tech program for the past 18 seasons sweats out the small stuff—which is why his program is one of the perennial powers in men's college golf.
Yet after the Yellow Jackets had finished the second round of the NCAA Championship Wednesday morning at Capital City Club's Crabapple Course, Heppler didn't even bit his tongue when letting out the following sentence: "I'll tell you right now this is as comfortable as I've been maybe ever [at NCAAs]."
Of course it helps that his squad had just posted its second straight six-under 274 to lead the championship after the morning wave had been completed, the role of host school at the tournament suiting the Heppler's fivesome just fine.
Sophomore Ollie Schniederjans backed up a first-round 67 with a 68, while sophomore Anders Albertson (69-67) and junior Seth Reeves (69-69) posted consecutive sub-70 rounds on a par-70 track played at 7,319 yards.
By day's end, the Yellow Jackets would remain atop the leader board as they tried to advance to the match-play portion of the championship for the third time since it was added in 2009.
Part of the coach's relaxed demeanor stems from what his group had gone through just to qualify for the NCAA Championship.
A year after failing to get out of regionals for only the second time during Heppler's tenure at the school, Tech spent three pressure-packed days on the cut line at the Tallahassee Regional hoping its season wouldn't end prematurely for a second straight year. Playing for their competitive lives, the team finished fourth to secure the chance to compete at home on the Crabapple Course, where the Yellow Jackets hold regular practice rounds during the season.
While harrowing at the time, handling the pressure at Tallahassee served Heppler's team well in the coach's mind.
"I'm almost glad the way it was," he said. "Because none of those kids have played in this tournament. To be there on that number for three rounds and to get it done on the last day there makes them feel like they can do it because they don't know what they don't know."
Having played more than a dozen rounds at Crabapple during the spring, Georgia Tech snuck in three more between regionals and nationals, playing both in the morning and afternoon to do its best to simulate conditions the team would encounter this week during NCAAs.
"I know we can play well here," Heppler said. "We've worked hard."
"The weather, being at home, everything is so comfortable for us," Schniederjans added. "And not only do we play the course a lot but it actually suits are games well. We've got guys that hit it far. You've got to hit it long out here and know how to play out of the rough and know how to putt on fast bentgrass greens. That's perfect [for us]."
Mind you there is not much room for error with the third and final round of stroke play looming Thursday. Just one shot back of the Yellow Jackets sits California, the top-ranked team in the country and the heavy favorite to claim the national title this week. The Golden Bears got off to a sizzling start Wednesday, the team standing at 17 under for the round through 13 holes, only to stumble on Crabapple's difficult closing holes.
Senior__ Max Homa__ was eight under on his round through 15 holes before bogeying the 16th and double bogeying the 18th to close with only a 65. Bogeys on three of his last five holes also caused Brandon Hagy to finish with a disappointing 69.
Of the four golfers who counted for Cal's Day 2 score, they collectively shot nine over on the final five holes while Georgia Tech's counters played them at even par.
"This team has played a lot of great rounds," said Cal coach Steve Desimone. "I haven't seen us come apart like that all year."
Still, the Golden Bears are in good position to finish inside the top eight and qualify for match play as they hold an 11 stroke cushion on the eighth-place team after 36 holes, Texas A&M, who stand at even-par 560.
Same with the two schools that competed in the championship match a year ago at Riviera CC—winner Texas and runner-up Alabama. The Longhorns posted a nine-under 271 Wednesday (tied with Arkansas for the day's low team round) to climb into third place at 10 under after 36 holes, throwing out an even-par 70 after Kramer Hickok shot a season-best 66 and Julio Vegas and Brandon Stone shot 68s.
The Crimson Tide posted a four-under 276 Wednesday to close at nine under overall, putting them in fourth. The other schools inside the cut line entering the final day: Arkansas and Illinois (three-under 557), Arizona State (two-under 558) with freshman Jon Rahm still leading the individual race, and Texas A&M.
On the outside looking in: UCF (one over), Oklahoma (two over), Tennessee and North Florida (three over), Washington and Florida State (four over). All told 14 schools are within 10 strokes of the cut, ensuring that Thursday's play will be entertaining.