Mean Green Golf Striving To Reach New Heights
Conference USA Championship Starts Sunday April 24
The 2015-16 men's golf team is looking to defend its C-USA title from last season starting Sunday, April 24 in Texarkana (photo by Rick Yeatts).
To say the North Texas men’s golf program has championship pedigree would be an understatement. The Mean Green have not only won four NCAA championships, but they did so in consecutive seasons in 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1952. The success did not stop there.
The program has advanced to 34 NCAA Tournaments and has finished top 10 in the nation in 16 of those appearances, including a Conference USA championship and NCAA Tournament appearance in 2015.
One of the many faces of the program, Don January, who was part of the first class inducted into the North Texas Hall of Fame in 1981, was a part of three of the four national championships. His 10 PGA Tour victories and 23 Champions Tour wins set a high bar for future Mean Green golfers to achieve.
“A lot of things are different in the game since I was playing in the 50s and 60s,” January said. “Nowadays players have the chance to play in so many tournaments when they are young and that helps you learn to be competitive. Also, the equipment has gotten so much better with the use of technology and how far the golf ball is going.”
Even after January graduated and began playing on the PGA Tour, conference championships continued to pile up in the modern era regardless of what league North Texas was playing in. While in the Missouri Valley Conference, Mean Green golfers brought home six-straight conference titles from 1961 to 1966. After a rare off-year in 1967, North Texas started a new streak, winning five more conference titles from 1968 to 1972.
After 13 Missouri Valley Conference titles, the Mean Green fell below the level of success achieved in the 50s and 60s, only winning a modest five championships from 1975-2003, due in part to a step up in competition when in the Southland Conference, the Big West Conference and the Sun Belt.
Enter current head coach Brad Stracke, who took over the North Texas men’s golf program mid-year in 2009 and lead the Mean Green to a third-place finish at the Sun Belt Conference championship.
Stracke, an ultimate competitor, was a first team All-Conference player at UAB in 1993. Before arriving at North Texas, Stracke was the head coach at Indian Hills Community College for nine seasons and then spent the next three seasons as an assistant with the Florida Gators.
Stracke was a part of Florida’s second-place finish at the NCAA Championship in 2006 and coached six All-American during his tenure. In 2009-2010, the Mean Green started to show signs of returning to national prominence as two incoming freshmen, Carlos Ortiz and Rodolfo Cazaubon, qualified for the NCAA Tournament as individuals.
“When I first arrived at North Texas, we were ranked No. 165 in the country,” Stracke said. “I was fortunate to bring in four impact freshmen in Carlos Ortiz, Curtis Donahoe, Rodolfo Cazaubon and Marco Scarola. I focused on recruiting first and then developed those players into tour professionals by the time their careers were finished at North Texas.”
In 2010-2011, the Mean Green took leaps forward, achieving a No. 3 national ranking, their highest in decades, and earned an at-large bid to the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the second in school history.
North Texas continued that success in the years to follow, winning back-to-back Sun Belt Conference championships in 2012 and 2013. Then came the move to the Conference USA in 2014, during which the Mean Green struggled to a 10th-place finish at the conference championship. That stumbling block, however, was exactly what the team needed to spark a fire in the following season.
That following season, the Mean Green took first place in stroke play to advance to the final-day match play for the first time. North Texas defeated Charlotte in the morning and claimed the title against UAB in the afternoon. It marked the third title under Stracke and the fourth time that the program advanced to the NCAA Tournament. There they placed ninth in the regional, coming up short of a top-five finish needed to reach the NCAA finals.
“The way Stracke turned the program around without having an on-campus facility is nothing short of remarkable,” January said. “It was nice to see the program start winning again and I hope it continues in the future.”
This season, the veteran team exploded out of the gates thanks to similar success by freshmen Ian Snyman and Thomas Rosenmueller. Snyman finished third at the Oak Hill Invitational and shot a season-low 67 in the prestigious Aggie Invitational in early April. Rosenmueller helped the Mean Green to a first-place finish and won the individual title at the Quail Valley Collegiate Invitational in late October thanks to a second-round, season-low 63.
“Our finish in the Aggie Invitational earlier this season was the best since I have been here and it gave us confidence we can play with the top teams in the country,” added Stracke.
“We are a fairly young team,” Cory Churchman said. “Everyone has been working hard and I definitely think we have the talent to make a deep run this year. We know what it takes to win with three guys who have done it before.”
In the 10 previous tournaments this season, the Mean Green have secured a first-place finish, a second-place and six top-five finishes. Entering the C-USA championship, which will be played at the same venue (Texarkana Country Club) as 2015, NT holds a ranking of No. 62 in the country and could achieve a third at-large NCAA Tournament bid with a top-three finish.
“I believe we are trending in the right direction after a couple of good finishes,” Cotton said. “Our team this year has less experience but I think we are more talented and can be explosive at times.”
This team, however, wants more than just to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. They want to win back-to-back conference titles like their former teammates did in 2012 and 2013.
“This year has been different in that fact that we had to win the conference tournament to advance last season, and this year we have been much more consistent,” Stracke said. “We need to play well in stroke play in case we don’t win the match play. The great thing about this team is they play their best golf against top competition.”
The conference title defense begins Sunday, April 24, and the Mean Green will be hoping to make the final four for match play Wednesday, April 27, after three rounds of stroke play. Stracke will have three veteran leaders from last year’s championship team in the lineup in sophomore Michael Cotton, junior Cory Churchman and junior Alejandro Villasana. Cotton and Churchman combined to go a perfect 4-0 in match play last year.
“It doesn’t hurt to have guys who have been there before,” added Stracke. “They can help out the younger guys to tell them what can happen in match play because in that format one team could just get hot. You never know.”
“I love playing match play because the putter comes alive for me,” Cotton said. “I play my best golf in match play and it just presents a whole new ball game and our team loves that format so if we get there I like our chances.”
With all the accolades, the program is hoping to make that next step in continuing its tradition of excellence in the sport of men’s golf by qualifying for the NCAA finals. The first step starts on round one in a familiar place at the Texarkana Country Club.
“This course really fits my game really well and I feel we have an advantage this week knowing how to prepare to defend our title,” Churchman said. “We are hungry after not qualifying for nationals last season but our focus is on taking care of business at conference.”
“If this team can make it to the NCAA regionals again I feel like they have a really good chance to breakthrough to the NCAA finals,” Stracke said. “The future is definitely bright.”