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Freshmen lead No. 1 Auburn past No. 2 Vanderbilt in SEC final

Freshmen lead No. 1 Auburn past No. 2 Vanderbilt in SEC final

Moments after Auburn secured its first SEC team title since 2018, Tigers head coach Nick Clinard stated, “How about them freshmen, baby?!”

Not only had Jackson Koivun polished off a sensational week in which he won the individual crown before going 3-0 in match play, but Josiah Gilbert, in the starting lineup for just the second time, took down Vanderbilt’s Gordon Sargent, the world’s second-ranked amateur, to earn the clinching point in a 3-2 win over the Commodores on Sunday at Sea Island Golf Club.

“We’re not standing right here without them, I can promise you that,” Clinard added.

Auburn, ranked No. 1 in the country and winners of seven tournaments entering the week in St. Simons Island, Georgia, earned the top seed for match play by shooting 14 under to tie Tennessee in the 54-hole, stroke-play portion of the championship. Koivun, who is from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, finished six shots clear of the field for his second win and 10th top-6 finish in 11 starts. Junior Brendan Valdes added a T-11 showing, his ninth finish of 11th or better this season, while Gilbert also cracked the top 20, tying for 17th to follow a solo fifth in his starting-lineup debut for Auburn two weeks ago at the Mossy Oak Collegiate.

Gilbert, however, has now played 10 tournaments, his first eight coming as an individual. He posted three top-10s before finally qualifying for the starting five.

“We have a deep team, so he earned the right to be in the lineup,” Clinard said. “We did roll the dice a little bit throwing him in there, but we just felt like his skillset would shine. All year he’s been learning and getting more comfortable and starting to feel like he belonged. He didn’t play a lot of junior golf in the states and didn’t play against a lot of these guys. He knows the names but doesn’t necessarily know them.”

That included Sargent, an NCAA individual champ two years ago as a freshman and now with a PGA Tour card locked up for Summer 2025. Gilbert was so nervous on the first hole of their championship bout on Sunday that his approach shot from 90 yards out traveled just 60 yards and landed in a bunker.

“I think he’s a little nervous,” Auburn assistant Chris Williams, a former top-ranked amateur as a player, told Clinard early in the match.

Gilbert went 1 down after one but never trailed again after that. He won each of the next four holes to take a 3-up lead before closing out Sargent, 4 and 2, and sealing the trophy for the Tigers, who had also beaten Vanderbilt, arguably Auburn's biggest challenge for a national championship as well, in the final of the SEC Fall Preview.

“What a coming-out party for him this week to show everybody that he can flat-out play,” Clinard added.

Koivun drilled Matthew Riedel, 7 and 6. “My putting was really good today, and I think it kind of wore him out,” Koivun said. And Auburn’s other point came via junior Carson Bacha’s 1-up win over William Moll. Bacha tied for 13th in the Tigers’ fall opener, the Maui Jim Intercollegiate, but he failed to crack the starting lineup for a stroke-play event the rest of the fall as Clinard had his players qualify for every spot that semester; no coaches’ picks. Bacha used his time on the bench to iron out some things in his game with instructor Mark Blackburn.

Bacha posted four straight top-6 finishes before a T-41 at Sea Island.

“We always knew at the end of the day he’d be there at the end for us,” Clinard said.

Auburn’s SEC triumph ensures that the Tigers will be the top overall seed for NCAA regionals, and they’ll likely be sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the May 13-15 tournament.

First, though, they’ll relish this one a little bit.

Clinard said his team was getting ready to go roll the oak trees at Toomer’s Corner on Sunday evening.

“It’s hard to win, no matter who you play,” Clinard said. “Especially going up against Vanderbilt and the team that they have, which is phenomenal. But we’re confident in ourselves, too, and we knew it was going to be a great match. No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the country going head to head in the SEC Championship, which is exactly what you want.

“… I told them enjoy this, but then get ready for the next one. Our job’s not finished.”