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The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, May 11, 2011

By Bethany Bradsher

More milestones ahead for ECU men's golf

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

For the average East Carolina fan, it might be tough to appreciate the significance of postseason accomplishments from the Olympic sports teams. Individual swimmers and runners qualify for the NCAA on a routine basis, and the ECU women’s golf team has made seven NCAA regional appearances in its 11 years as an East Carolina program.

But the most recent ECU team to qualify for the NCAA tournament hasn’t been there since George Bush was president. That’s George Bush, Senior. When the word came that the Pirate men’s golf team was awarded a 9th seed at the NCAA Regional in Blacksburg, VA, next week, it was the fulfillment of Goal No. 1 in coach Press McPhaul’s blueprint to bring his team to national prominence.

“It’s sort of the first step,” said McPhaul, who is in his fifth year at the helm of the program. "When we started to rebuild this program five years ago, this was one of our goals, but not our ultimate goal. Our goal is to go to the finals.”

When the Pirates travel to the Pete Dye River Course for the tournament, which opens on March 19, it will only be their second regional appearance ever, with the last one in 1991 before some of the current golfers were born.

The bid didn’t come as a surprise, because ECU has won two tournaments this season and finished in the top five in five more events. Their national ranking after the Conference USA Tournament last weekend was 35th in one poll and 51st in the other, good enough to ensure a spot among the 81 schools that are selected for regionals.

It may have been two decades, but the golfers took their selection in stride as well, sharing their coach’s view that it is only one necessary stop en route to their ultimate destination. Before every tournament since the season opened last September, McPhaul reminded them that each drive and each putt could be the fuel that got the team to a regional. Now that they have made it, they know that their goal has become more ambitious — to finish the Blacksburg Regional in the top 5 and make it to the NCAA Championship in Stillwater, OK, on May 31.

Not even the players fully grasp the historical significance of the bid, said junior Adam Stephenson, a Greenville product who played for J.H. Rose. But they do recognize that ECU men’s golf is on the rise.

“I don’t think a lot of the team realizes what we’re doing right now, but I think we understand that we have grown a lot, especially over the last four years,” Stephenson said. “And the program has jumped exponentially over the last two years. We deserve to be a top 20 or top 30 school. We want to prove that we can play against any team in the nation.”

After capping off the fall season with a victory in the Outer Banks Invitational, the Pirates were determined to carry that momentum into the spring portion of the schedule. With the exception of a disappointing performance in the C-USA Tournament, where they finished sixth, the team was steady and consistent through the spring, even winning their second title at the River Landing Intercollegiate in early April. Two Pirate golfers — juniors Harold Varner and David Watkins — were named first team All-Conference last week.

The River Landing victory made an NCAA regional bid a certainty, so McPhaul thinks the team was off its game in the league tournament because the men weren’t sure what they were playing for. They wanted to win, but they had already grabbed the prize that had propelled them to that point.

“We changed our outlook going into the conference tournament,” he said. “It was almost like just a little bit of air came out, and what replaced it was a little bit of tension about whether we could win.”

The challenge ahead for the Pirates includes four top 20 teams, including No. 5 Georgia Tech and No. 9 LSU. ECU will be paired with host school Virginia Tech and Ole Miss for the first two rounds, teeing off at 8:50 a.m. Thursday morning after a practice round on Wednesday. The Pirates have seen five of the other 12 teams in previous tournaments, and they will face plenty of tough opponents. But McPhaul is also focused on the Pete Dye course, which is 7,665 yards long and features lush Bermuda grass.

“The wild card at this event is not the field, although the field is very good,” McPhaul said. “It’s the golf course. It’s 400 yards longer than most courses, and it has those soft Bermuda fairways. You hit it and your club sticks in it, and you take a huge divot.

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05/16/2011 01:41 AM

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