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March 15, 2012

Handicapping the Spring

By: Jimmy Robertson

Mikey Moyers played well over the summer and fall, and he will be counted on to be one of the Hokies’ top players this spring.

The 2012 Tech golf squad features two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, but head coach Jay Hardwick is optimistic about his team’s chances this spring

\In numerous ways, the 2011 season classified as a success for the Virginia Tech golf program. After all, the team never finished worse than ninth in any tournament, advanced to its fifth consecutive NCAA regional and fared well as the hosts for the East Regional held at the Pete Dye River Course of Virginia Tech.

But the Hokies came three shots short of advancing to the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championships, and the disappointment still lingers.

“I was,” Tech head coach Jay Hardwick admitted when asked if he was disappointed at Tech’s sixth-place finish in the regionals – the top five teams in each regional advance. “I thought we could contend for the regionals, or certainly be in the top three or four. But we put ourselves in a hole [in the first two rounds]. We fought back and got it back to within a shot. But Kent State’s No. 1 and No. 2 guys miss the greens on 17 and 18 – and you know how difficult those holes are – and both guys chip it in. My hat is off to them. Good teams do that.

“I was disappointed for our people, all the volunteers and the people who came out. We had 100-150 volunteers and other people who came out, and their support was great. You’d like to have been able to reward them and go on to nationals. We’ve got to learn from that. Three of the five guys in the lineup are back, so hopefully we can do that.”

In fairness, Tech entered last year’s regional without Aaron Eckstein, who missed the event with a shoulder injury – and Eckstein played the River Course better than anyone on the team. Also, heavy rains before the regional softened the greens, changing the course and ultimately taking away some of the Hokies’ home course advantage.

But all that only serves as motivation, as the Hokies began their 2012 spring season in Puerto Rico in mid-February. They finished in a tie for sixth in a loaded field in which eight of the 15 teams in the field were ranked in the top 50 nationally according to Golfweek. With those big three cogs back from last year’s regional team, the Hokies hope to make their sixth straight trip to the NCAA regionals.

“We take it a tournament at a time,” Hardwick said. “We don’t try to prepare for a tournament any differently than any others. I don’t think any tournament is bigger than the next. We don’t try to look ahead.

“Obviously, our ultimate goal is to try and win the ACC and make it to the NCAA regionals. Then, hopefully, we’ll play as well as we can and go on to the national championships. But you can’t get too far ahead of yourself in this game.”

The Hokies’ spring success hinges a lot on the play of their returning veterans. Tech lost Eckstein, Marshall Bailey and Garland Green off last season’s squad, but senior Blake Redmond, junior Mikey Moyers and sophomore Bryce Chalkley all played in that NCAA regional last spring, and therefore, bring experience to this squad.

Redmond, from Sugar Land, Texas, serves as the team captain, but Moyers ranks as probably the most talented player on the team. The Stanardsville, Va., native is looking to put a bad regional behind him with a strong fall and spring. He shot 20-over-par in the East Regional, the worst among Tech’s five players in that regional.

But he played well last summer and during the Hokies’ fall tournaments. He shot even par in the Northern Intercollegiate in Sugar Grove, Ill., to finish third overall and then shot 1-under-par in the VCU Shootout at Hermitage Country Club outside of Richmond to finish 21st. He came out of the fall with an average round of 73.71 – second best on the team – and then this spring, he nearly set the course record at Blacksburg Country Club, lipping out a birdie putt on 18 for a 62.

“I think he [Moyers] puts too much pressure on himself,” Hardwick said. “He wanted it too badly [at the regional] and got in his own way. He didn’t play good [at the regional] the year before. Hopefully, he’s more mature and is over that.

“He’s playing pretty well so far this year. He knows all the golf courses. He’s more comfortable. He wants to win. He hasn’t won in college, and he won a lot in high school and a lot in junior golf. He’s got his sights on getting a victory.”

Chalkley, the sophomore from Richmond, played well as a freshman at last May’s regional, shooting a respectable 6-over-par, and then he qualified for the U.S. Amateur last August, shooting 5-over-par on the longest course in U.S. Amateur history (Erin Hills Golf Club in Erin, Wisc.). This fall, he struggled early, but he recorded two top-10 finishes in the Hokies’ final three tournaments, and in Puerto Rico, he finished 31st at 3-over-par.

“He knows how to score when he’s not playing good,” Hardwick said. “He slumped the first two months, and then things clicked. He had two top-10s in two of the last three tournaments [in the fall]. So we think he’s back on track.”

Redmond played the best of any Tech player at last May’s regional, shooting 3-over-par, and he played well at last spring’s ACC Championships. But he struggled this past fall, and Hardwick actually took him out of the lineup for a spell. Yet he came around enough to warrant going to Puerto Rico, and Hardwick hopes the solid play continues.

“He played better at Greensboro [the UNCG Bridgestone Golf Collegiate],” Hardwick said. “He’s a player who is a key for us. Right now, he’s playing in the 5 spot. He’s certainly capable, and we need that out of him.”

Moyers handles the top spot in the Hokies’ lineup, but after him come two talented freshmen in Trevor Cone and Scott Vincent. Cone, from Concord, N.C., actually led the team with a 73.36 average coming out of the fall, while Vincent, from Harare, Zimbabwe, finished third at 74.43. Both recorded two top-20 finishes in the fall, and Cone nearly won the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate held at The Blackthorn Club in Johnson City, Tenn., shooting even par to finish third.

Cone finished in a tie for fourth in Puerto Rico – an impressive showing in which he shot 5-under-par and finished five strokes out of first place. He could end up in the No. 1 spot for the Hokies if he continues his current pace. In Hardwick’s 29 seasons as the head coach, only current assistant coach Brian Sharp and current PGA Tour player Brendon de Jonge have been in the No. 1 spot in the lineup as a freshman.

“He’s [Cone] a player. When he realizes how much natural talent he has and he starts working toward that goal, I think the sky is the limit for him,” Hardwick said. “He’s got all the things you like. He’s very natural. He doesn’t play with a glove. His swing is very easy, very natural. He’s a big, strong kid. He’s 6-foot-2, 6-3 and wears a size 15 shoe. He’s an athlete. He’s got a natural swing, and he plays very fast, which is refreshing. He’s pretty nonchalant about it. We’re trying to get him a little meaner and a little tougher.”

Vincent finished at 4-over-par in Puerto Rico and finished in a tie for 33rd. He won a lot at the junior level and possesses the talent and swing to compete for the top spot in each tournament.

“Scotty’s just got a solid game,” Hardwick said. “He’s not a very big kid, but he’s strong for his size. He’s got good length and has a lot of shots. He’s a complete player. He really doesn’t have a weakness. He’s won a lot. When he tees it up, his expectations are different than a lot of players. A lot of players are thinking about a number or making the top 10. He’s thinking about the top spot.”

The rest of the roster includes redshirt sophomores Jacob Everts and Marc MacDonald and freshman Miles Curley. Everts has battled some health issues, but appears to be on track now, while MacDonald continues to improve and Curley has been playing well in the team’s qualifying competition to determine the active squad for tournaments.

“We’ve got, top to bottom, eight players who are as good as we’ve had in awhile,” Hardwick said. “There’s not any great distant from the top to the bottom.”

The Hokies play their traditionally difficult spring slate, starting with the tournament in Puerto Rico. The ACC Championships are held April 20-22 at the Old North State course at Baden Lake, N.C., and the ACC again is strong this season, with four teams in the top 20, according to Golfweek’s rankings.

The Hokies played well in the fall, and they have gotten more practice time this winter than in winters past because of the mild weather this winter in Southwest Virginia. The veterans are looking better, and the freshmen showed a lot in the fall despite not having seen the courses and give promise to a bright future. And the team is smart, with six of eight players sporting a 3.0 grade-point average or better and three of them making the Dean’s List this past fall – something that usually correlates to good golf.

All that has Hardwick optimistic about the team’s chances this spring.

“I’m encouraged,” he said. “I thought we had some really bright moments in the fall against a good strong schedule. We finished in the top five four times, so I’m encouraged about that.”

The NCAA East Regional this year will be held at the Grandover Resort in Greensboro, N.C., on May 17-19, while the national championships will be held at Riviera Country Club outside of Los Angeles on May 29-June 3.