April 22, 2009

Rite Of Spring

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Stetson's win in the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship is just one of the many success stories of automatic qualifiers.

It's an anniversary that hasn't garnered much attention this spring, although any lack of acknowledgement from those within the small but passionate world of college golf hardly should be taken as a sign of apathy. On the contrary, the Division I men's committee's decision a decade ago (followed by the women's committee a year later) to award schools automatic qualification into NCAA regionals for winning their conference championship remains among the most popular, if not significant, advancements to the collegiate game. No longer would a shot at postseason glory be up to the discretion of the six-man selection committee. Get the job done on the course, regardless of your program's tradition or pedigree, and you would be properly rewarded.

With the 2008-09 season marking the 10th year of conference automatic qualifiers (AQs) -- and the first year that men's conference medalists will qualify individually for NCAA postseason play should their schools not advance to regionals -- the last three weeks of April consistently offer some of the game's most compelling theater, where true grit and Cinderella stories aren't just the stuff of Hollywood. How else do you explain the giant lump that formed in the throat of Stetson women's coach Floyd Kerr during the final round of the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship last week?

The Lady Hatters, who had never claimed the A-Sun title in their 20 years in the conference, were tied with perennial contender Campbell at Victoria Hills GC in DeLand, Fla., as Kerr walked alongside his top player, Danielle Jackson, during the tournament's final three holes. On the 160-yard par-3 16th, Jackson, the last in her threesome to hit after bogeying the 15th hole, saw her opponents' balls sitting safely on the green. Pulling a 5-iron, Jackson stuck her tee shot inches from the cup, en route to a kick-in birdie. On the par-4 17th, after her approach shot came to rest 15 feet from the hole and she proceeded to hole another birdie putt. A par on the 18th secured Stetson a two-shot victory and its first trip to the NCAA postseason.

"It's one of the most unbelievable feelings you'll ever experience," Kerr said. "It was extremely tense out there, but then to see Danielle come through and win individually and for the team, what can you say? She's just one of those people that the pressure doesn't really affect her."

Nearly 2,500 miles away at San Luis Obispo (Calif.) CC, Cy Williams was similarly doing everything in his power to keep his heart from jumping out of his chest as he watched his UC Davis men's squad at Big West Championship earlier this week. Only in their second year competing at the Division I level, the Aggies managed to hold off in-state rivals UC-Irvine and Pacific by seven strokes.

"You could see the intensity from the teams we were playing," said Williams, who preached to his players all season the need to consider the current tournament the biggest of the season, hoping that that would keep them from looking to the future instead of concentrating on the present. Try as he might to maintain that message, though, the coach knew it was likely futile.

"We didn't talk about the NCAA bid, but the guys all knew in the back of their minds what's at stake," Williams said. "I'm proud of the way they handled themselves. They worked so hard and it's good to see them get this victory."

The University of San Francisco men had won the West Coast Conference title before, but not since 1990 with the program having finished in fifth and seventh place the previous two seasons. Yet when the Dons' four counting scorers shot a collective four under par on the final hole, USF rallied to beat Loyola Marymount by one stroke.

"This is a very special moment," said Dr. Gary Nelson, the coach brought in four years earlier to try and rebuild the program. "How often do you make a plan where everything falls into place? It doesn't happen that often, and it's gratifying to see things fall into place. It took hard work from the players, coaches and support staff. I am proud of this team and how hard they have worked to achieve this."

Neither Stetson, nor UC Davis, nor San Francisco is going to win the NCAA title this season, but that's beside the point. Each team now has the chance to compete at the pinnacle of the college game, as will another 25 men's and women's conference champions who will be crowned in the next 10 days. "We're going to go there enjoy and have a good time," said Kerr of the NCAA regionals. "Wherever we'll go we'll be the last team in the ranking. We're going for the experience."

Indeed, conference AQs have provided all the incentive any school in the country really needs to get to work, creating the opportunity for an experience that is everything intercollegiate athletics is supposed to be about. For as often as the NCAA seems to act in contradiction to its mission to help serve its student-athletes, here's an instance where it's gotten something very, very right.