Mid-season awards: Biggest Surprises
The first half of the 2008-09 campaign has come and gone. With roughly eight weeks to catch their breathe before beginning the spring march to the NCAA Championship, players and programs must assess where they stand overall and consider how to repeat any success from the fall or recover from a disappointing start to the season.
And just who, exactly, will be doing the repeating and who is looking at recovering? Gaze no further than Golf World's fifth annual Mid-Season Award package, a compendium that serves as both a review of the season to date and a primer for what's to come when players tee it up again in late January. Each day we'll reveal another award winner in men's and women's college golf, culminating with the Mid-Season Player of the Year honorees and All-American teams being unveiled on Wednesday, Nov. 25.
Lets start with the golfers and teams that unexpectedly made a lasting impression the past three months.
__BIGGEST SURPRISE: PLAYER
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Diego Velasquez, Oregon State
For as happy-go-lucky as the Bogota, Colombia native was off the course his first three years in Corvallis, Ore., Velasquez was the picture of tension on it, turning a talented ball-striker (he won twice during the 2008-09 season) into an inconsistent golfer.
Entering his senior season, however, he spent time in the summer addressing his mental approach to the game, taking serious the various meditation and breathing techniques the Beaver squad have been taught by the team's sports psychologist in recent years.
"When he came [to campus] in the fall, I saw a different person," said Oregon State men's coach Brian Watts. "He had always been a very aggressive player, but he had a much more patient approach. When he wasn't hitting it great, he wasn't trying to force anything."
Suffice it to say, the more laid-back attitude worked: Velasquez finished third, T-3, first and second in Oregon State's four fall starts, posting a 69.27 average while breaking par in 10 of 11 rounds.
"It wasn't like he was lights out with his putter or flagging everything," Watts said about Velasquez. "He just was doing everything very well. He's comfortable, confident and relaxed on the course. He's in a great place mentally, which sets him apart. He's mentally tougher and disciplined and calm out there."
"I just try to stay inside there and don't let anybody else come inside it," Velasquez recently told the Corvallis Gazette-Times. "It's just me out there, doing my thing."
Honorable mention: Seath Lauer, Florida State
The senior from Huntington, Ind., had been a staple of the Seminoles lineup the past two seasons, but stepped up his performance this fall with three top-10s in four fall events, including a runner-up showing at the Gary Koch Collegiate.
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Sara-Maude Juneau, Louisville
The departure of All-American Cindy LaCrosse left a potential void at the top of the Cardinals' line-up, one that the 22-year-old junior from Quebec has done her part to fill. After posting a 74.5 average a year ago, the Canadian native limboed that number to 71.07 this fall, winning her first two college titles and finishing fourth and second in two other starts. Her shinning moment came in October at the Lady Tar Heel Invitational, where Juneau shot a career-best 10-under 206.
Searching for what brought out the best in Juneau might require you look not further than the solid play of teammate Laura Anderson, a junior who won once in the fall, lost a second tournament in a playoff and had two additional top-10 finishes. The two have been battling for the No. 1 spot all fall, a rivalry that's had great returns for both.
Honorable mention: Cheyenne Woods, Wake Forest
There has been no sophomore slump for Phoenix, native, who closed out the fall with a T-6 showing at the Mercedes-Benz Collegiate and a T-3 at the NCAA Preview. "She's always had the athletic ability to hit the ball well but her short game has improved so much," said women's coach Diane Dailey. On a squad with All-American caliber players in Natalie Sheary and Dolores White, it was Woods who posted the low scoring average (72.83) for the Demon Deacons this fall, a performance that would make Uncle Tiger proud.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: TEAM
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Having one player post nothing higher than a 72 in any round during the fall, as Beaver coach__Brian Watts had with Velasquez, quickly lifts a team up a leader board. Still, Oregon State's run of four straight top-four finishes--including victories at the OSU Giustina and the Bank of Tennessee at the Ridges--couldn't have come without a little help from the other guys in the line-up. Credit also goes to seniors Mike Barry (71.73 average) and Paul Peterson (72.88) and sophomore Morten Madsen (72.45), who each had top-15 finishes.
"Overall, from top to bottom we're as deep as we've ever been talentwise," said Watts, whose team started the semester unranked but was 21st in the most recent Golf World/Nike Golf coaches' poll. "If you get complacent on this team, you're not going to be in the lineup."
As with Velasquez, the entire roster has bought into the notion that slow and steady can win the race. "The guys are understanding that college golf is a marathon," Watts noted. "Everybody is going to have ups and downs, but how you get things back on track is what matters."
Honorable mention: SMU
Two wins to start the fall from the Mustangs have been followed but two more top-three performances to close out the semester. Besides becoming the front-runner for the Conference USA title, Jay Loar's crew is entering the fray on the national level.
[#image: /photos/55ad70ccadd713143b422180]|||Thumbnail image for Michigan State.jpg|||Michigan State__
If the Spartans impressive start to the 2009-10 season--two wins and a second-place finish in four starts--caught some off guard (OK, yours truly), the same can't be said for Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll. "We've been looking forward to this year for years," said the MSU women's coach, who has made a living (literally) off signing talented if under the radar junior golfers.
Coming into the fall, however, she knew that her line-up for the first time ran a legitimate five players deep, with experienced returning starters Laura Kueny,Aimee Neff,Lindsey Solberg and Shannon Warner being joined by freshman Caroline Powers. Where last spring the Spartans' top performers became guilty of pressing, feeling like they had to shoot low scores for MSU to succeed only to get in their own way, this year's group has played with the freedom of knowing that everyone is capable of contributing.
The difference became evident at the Lady Tar Heel Invitational in October. With a victory already in their home event (Mary Fossum), the Spartans journeyed to Chapel Hill, N.C., and returned with arguably their biggest regular-season title ever, beating a standout field by 12 strokes while breaking the school's 54-hole scoring record.
"We knew we had the potential, but to come through and win was a huge confidence booster," Slobodnik-Stoll said. "We know what we're capable of doing."
Even finishing the fall with a 10th-place showing at the NCAA Preview, MSU's collective outlook remained high knowing that while playing poorly at CC of Landfall in Wilmington, they still finished in the top 10 and got a good look at the course that will host the national championship in May.
Honorable mention: Florida State
Their finish to the fall was a little flat (14th at Lady Tar Heel), but the Seminoles, unranked at the start of the fall, were impressive in victory at the Bette Lou Evans Invitational and with runner-up finishes at the Duramed Cougar Classic and Eat A Peach Collegiate. The performances are even more interesting considering they saw former All-American Caroline Westrup graduating from a squad that failed to qualify for nationals at year ago.