Western Washington University’s men’s golf team was sitting pretty. The Vikings had a four-stroke lead going into the final day of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championship, headed for their seventh straight conference win.
WWU senior – junior at the time – Kyle Schrader led all golfers by at least six strokes. He looked destined for medalist honors.
Twenty-four hours later, WWU sat in fourth place. Schrader was in second. The Vikings had collapsed in the final round. Schrader shot an 80 and nobody on the team shot better than a 76 on the final day. It was shocking considering that only two scores of the previous 10 came in higher than a 76 for the Vikings.
“Last year was a really big disappointment,” Schrader said in a phone interview. “We just didn’t play well when we needed to, which was kind of the whole story of last year.”
Schrader’s 80 was the worst Viking round of the final day and so, for him, it was especially hard. A quadruple bogey early in the round crushed him mentally, something he said is a must-change quality this year.
“I took a lot away from that,” Schrader said. “A quadruple bogey is kind of a fluke, which happens in golf. But I carried it with me. I couldn’t get refocused.”
The good thing about 2013 and the frustrating season most Viking golfers had? All but one of them return this season. The nine returners get paired with freshmen Joe Fryer and Brian Moon to make up the WWU 11.
With so much talent returning to the Vikings squad, the team is filled with excitement. The Vikings are only two years removed from a NCAA Division II Final Four appearance and both Mark Strickland and Schrader have stuck around from that team.
“We’re looking a lot better than last year,” Schrader said. “We have all the talent the team had going to nationals.”
Depth is always essential in college golf but for the Vikings it means a little more.
WWU goes through intra-team qualifying, in which all 11 golfers will compete against one another as if it were an actual tournament. The top five golfers are named to the traveling team, the bottom six have to sit at home. Throughout the season, qualifying will happen in between tournaments to adjust the traveling team and bottom six accordingly.
The key to these qualifying rounds, which the Vikings did eight of this year, is to treat it like a tournament, Schrader said.
If the team can practice and push each other as if it were a competitive round, then when a big tournament comes around, everyone knows how it feels and what to expect.
“When I came in as a sophomore, I was surprised at how serious the upper classmen took qualifying,” Schrader said. “They didn’t need to say anything. Those guys just set the intensity. I viewed it as ‘This is a tournament. Treat it as such.’”
But not every golfer takes it quite so seriously. Sophomore Chris Hatch tries to play a little looser in qualifying.
“Qualifying is fun,” Hatch said in a phone interview. “It’s fun stuff where you can get back in and battle without too much pressure.”
Maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Schrader admitted to putting too much pressure on himself last year to lead the team and not relaxing. Hatch’s more relaxed demeanor is, at the very least, a change of pace.
The traveling team this year after the preseason qualifying rounds is seniors Strickland and Schrader, sophomores Hatch, Brennan Emory and Anthony Allen and freshman Joe Fryer, who Schrader described as a “stud.”
Fryer, however, is dealing with eligibility issues after playing at the Lee Westwood Golf School in England this past summer.
The bottom six currently are junior Jack Kelly, sophomores Kyle Lindor and David Fonua, redshirt freshman Willy Scholten and freshman Brian Moon.
“It’s really difficult. It’s a grind,” Kelly said of being in the bottom six in a phone interview. “But it can change so quickly. If someone in the traveling five has one bad tournament, they’re back down in the bottom six, fighting their way to get back in there. You just got to enjoy the process.”
The key is to focus on yourself and improving your game, Kelly said, not thinking about what your teammates are doing.
“While we’re competing with our teammates, we want to beat them on the course,” Kelly said. “We’re all Vikings and we’re all good friends on the course, but it’s definitely competitive. It’s a very individual sport even though we’re all on Western’s team. But you got to worry about you.”
If everyone is working on themselves as individual golfers, the team is bound to get better, particularly when the Vikings have such important intra-team competition.
Schrader even went as far as saying the bottom six guys are “almost the most important thing” on the team.
“It makes sure nobody become complacent,” Schrader said. “When we do well at a tournament, it’s almost taking credit away from the bottom six. They don’t travel but they push us.”
By season’s end, the traveling team will be solidified and WWU will make another run for the NCAA Division II Championship. First, the Vikings have to recapture what used to only have their name on it – the GNAC Championship.