In many ways, reaching 34 under par at last week's Herb Wimberly Intercollegiate carried special meaning for the UNLV men's golf team.
It wasn't just that the score broke a tournament record in Las Cruces, N.M., the second tournament record the team has taken down this fall. Nor was it merely that it led to the Rebels' third team victory of the fall—a first in program history.
No, the 34 under par has historical significance: The 1998 national champion UNLV team shot that same number in Albuquerque to break the NCAA Championship record for lowest score.
Rebel coach Dwaine Knight knows his squad has a long way to go to accomplishing goals such as a national title. But he also realizes he has a special team on his hands.
"I really like the spirit and the energy of this team—it's been infectious to be around," said Knight, who's in his 25th year as coach at UNLV. "Those are the teams that have a chance to be really special. It's a very hard working team with a lot of enthusiasm. As a coach that's what you want to be around."
Wins in the team's first two events, the Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational in Colorado Springs and the William H. Tucker Invitational in Albuquerque, gave the Rebels reason to believe in themselves. They then added the win last week in New Mexico, beating second-place Wichita State by eight strokes.
After going without a victory in 2010-11, senior Derek Ernst, UNLV's top player, said it was great for the team to claim three wins so early into the 2011-12 season. He said the difference this fall has been production out of the Nos. 4 and 5 players, sophomore__Nicholas Maruri__ and freshman Carl Jonson, combined with steady play from himself, junior__Kevin Penner__ and sophomore Blake Biddle.
Maruri paced the team in Las Cruces with 18 total birdies en route to a third-place individual finish.
"It just kind of takes the pressure off a little bit, and lets you play golf and kind of focus on your own round," said Ernst, who has posted two thirds and a fourth-place showing, of UNLV's new-found depth.
Knight praised Ernst as one of the best putters and drivers in UNLV's history—high praise for a program that's featured top-tier players such as Ryan Moore (2004 NCAA champion), Chad Campbell,__ Charley Hoffman__,__ Bill Lunde__,__ Chris Riley and__Adam Scott.
Ernst said he is motivated this year after failing to earn All-American recognition in 2010-11, despite winning twice and earning Mountain West Conference player-of-the-year honors.
He showcased his talents this summer's U.S. Amateur Public Links, where the Clovis, Calif., native reached the final only to fall to Clemson's__Corbin Mills__ in 37 holes.
"I've had some unbelievable putters over the last couple years," Knight said, "but [Derek's] technique is excellent and he's very driven as far as working hard. I just think we're going to see big things from him in the spring."
Knight hopes his team will keep playing well in the spring, too. This fall was certainly a good start to getting UNLV into the national conversation.
"We've had teams that have been No. 1 year after year and they tried to stay at that level," Knight said, "but this is a team that's hungry to achieve some things and get up in that vicinity [with the nation's elite]. This team has captured that spirit and the desire to get out there and challenge themselves as much as they can."
To follow him on Twitter: @s_hennessey