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UI golf trending upward as championship season begins

Apr. 26—URBANA — An early September victory in a loaded field at the Sahalee Players Championship in Sammamish, Wash., was a splashy start to the fall season for the Illinois men's golf team.

The Illini beat runner-up Arizona State, ranked No. 2 nationally at the time and still in the top five now, by eight strokes. Star freshman Max Herendeen, playing basically in his back yard, lost in a playoff to the Sun Devils' All-American Preston Summerhays.

A major confidence builder for Herendeen and a new-look Illinois team that only had two holdovers from last year's lineup. But not a harbinger of consistent success.

Illinois finished 10th of 15 teams at its own Fighting Illini Invitational the next weekend at Olympia Fields Country Club in the Chicago suburbs as an up-and-down season commenced. The spring has seen more ups than downs. That includes three wins — two in the last three events — as the postseason gets underway Friday with the Big Ten Championship at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio. An event the Illini have won eight consecutive times under the direction of coach Mike Small.

"I think we got a little bit complacent and thought we were a little better than we were," Illinois sophomore Ryan Voois said about that strong start to the fall season. "But we've all learned, we've all grown, and we follow the lead of coach. He preaches consistency throughout the year.

"Toward the end of the year, I think we've done a little bit better of a job of listening and taking that stuff to heart. Hopefully, that's just in time for the postseason because the way coach teaches you to play golf is the way that golf needs to be played on tough, championship golf courses."

Illinois started its spring slate much like it did the fall with a win at the Hal Williams Collegiate in Mobile, Ala. Tournaments in Las Vegas and St. Simons Island, Ga., were less successful, but the last month has seen the Illini win both the Duck Invitational in Eugene, Ore., and their own Fighting Illini Spring Collegiate last weekend at Atkins Golf Club in Urbana. Jackson Buchanan got the individual victory in the former, while Voois notched his first career win in the latter.

"We've had a lot of peaks and valleys this year," Herendeen said. "Not similar to the team last year. We've embraced that a little bit just knowing nothing is guaranteed. It's been important to us to bringing any challenge on. We're definitely trending in the right direction. I think that's what coach is so good at — getting his teams ready for the postseason."

The consistency of last year's lineup with fifth-year players Adrien Dumont de Chassart, Tommy Kuhl and Matthis Besard at the top along with Buchanan and Piercen Hunt gave way to more of a mix-and-match approach for Small. At least earlier in the season.

Buchanan, Herendeen and Voois have been constants. The last three tournaments have seen freshman Ethan Wilson and Wright State transfer Tyler Goecke claim the other two spots in the lineup. No more "musical chairs" as Small put it even as Hunt, Timmy Crawford and Jerry Ji have played well as individuals.

Seven of Illinois' eight golfers have at least one top-five finish this season, with Buchanan's two individual victories leading the way. Crawford, a graduate transfer from Loyola Chicago, won the Flyer Invitational in mid-October playing as an individual. Wilson was second at the Johnnie-O Invitational last month also playing as an individual.

"We're young," Buchanan said. "We have a lot of talent. We've just got to be tougher. College golf is toughness. It's who can face a plugged lie in a bunker or a tough lie in fairway the best.

"This time of the year, you kind of just want to turn your brain off. Focus on the things you're good at. Coach says you don't want to be out there looking for things you need to get better at. You don't want to be working on your swing. It's not the time of year for that. You should be building momentum. I think that's what I'm doing. I think that's what the team doing."

Small is used to piecing together new lineups at this point of his career. It's what he's done for two decades as he's turned Illinois into a national powerhouse. He tweaked his lineup again heading into the Big Ten Championship, with Hunt replacing Goecke.

"We've done this for a better part of 15 years where we cycle players out, cycle ones in and have kept this thing going," Small said. "We are the No. 1 seed going into Big Tens, but it's a narrower margin than it has been in the past. We need everyone to hit more of a consistent trend.

"There's a purpose behind everything we do. The year is built for (the postseason), and it's worked out pretty well for 15-20 years, but there's no guarantee it's going to happen. That's something they have to understand, too, which keeps us motivated. Just because it happened in the past doesn't mean it's going to happen in the future. You take advantage of every opportunity you can to build for the big ones."