Of the 13 golfers who have teed it up this fall for the St. Thomas (Minn.) men's golf team, eight have an 18-hole average of 79.88 or better. Five have broken par at least once in 16 rounds, led by Emmet Herb (five times).
But the Middleton native said his Tommies figured out what makes them tick in the week leading up to last weekend's Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championship. And it provided them with the confidence and peace of mind to hold off Gustavus Adolphus on the final day, win the biggest event on their schedule and qualify for the NCAA Division III Championship.
"I think a lot of what led to our success is our belief in each other," Herb wrote in a text message to Wisconsin.Golf earlier this week after St. Thomas became the first school since St. John's in 2010 to successfully repeat as MIAC champion. "We have been searching for the right five guys to play and after qualifying this week we all just kinda sat down and realized that we had a great group of guys. We knew we had a lot of firepower and could make a lot of birdies and I think that positive mentality really propelled us forward."
Indeed, the Tommies were a model of consistency from start-to-finish at in cool, rainy conditions at Ridges at Sand Creek GC in Jordan, Minnesota. That included a 36-hole finale after the threat of bad weather Monday prompted MIAC officials to play the final two rounds Sunday.
Herb led the way with a 70-71-73 card, his 2-under-par 214 leaving him in a tie for second place, four shots behind medalist Jacob Petersen of Gustavus Adolphus (70-69-71). His score counted all three days, but everyone else in the lineup — including former Green Bay Notre Dame golfer Jack Ritchay — took turns contributing to the 291-298-293 effort that helped St. Thomas win by four strokes with an 882 team total, just five strokes off St. John's championship record set in 2006 and four better than the runner-up Gusties, who counted three 71s on the final day and played their 10 holes in 1-under in a dazzling display of par golf, counting five birdies, four bogeys and 31 pars.
"I think the key to our success was being able to be relaxed out there and trusting one another when we’re out there," Ritchay wrote in a Twitter message to Wisconsin.Golf. "The key to my weekend was just staying in the moment and focusing on the next shot and not getting too down or up on the previous shot I had hit. Also I just focused on playing for the team and not... where I was individually. I think everyone on or team was like that this weekend."
Herb was 2-over through four holes each of his three rounds. Yet, he never made the turn in more than 1-over.
"After poor starts to all three of my rounds I kept telling myself that there were plenty of opportunities and took advantage of them to be able to keep my scores below or right around par," Herb wrote. "The whole team took advantage of the par 5s. I think we played them 16-under-par (vs. 1-over for Gustavus Adolphus) and I just tried to make as many birdies as I could."
The victory was a monumental step for the Tommies program in the ultra-competitive MIAC.
The previous year, they won with four seniors and Herb, now a junior, in the lineup. This year, they had three seniors (Ritchay, Derek Farrell and Matt Mellin), a junior (Herb) and a sophomore (Peder Larson) in the line-up after numerous combinations were tried throughout the fall.
"For us to get back to the NCAAs means a lot because we wanted to back up what the guys and specifically the seniors had done last year," Ritchay wrote. "We also wanted to prove that we were better than what we (had) shot in our previous tournaments."
The victory gives St. Thomas reason to stay sharp through the winter without having to worry about battling for an at-large berth in the spring. The Tommies' victory earned them the MIAC's automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Championship for the second year in a row.
St. Thomas, which took the No. 1 ranking in Division III into last spring's national championship at Greensboro, N.C., finished 11th out of 42 teams. The 2019 championship will be played May 14 through 17 at Keene Trace GC in Nicholasville, Kentucky.
"Getting back to nationals is such a weight off our shoulders," Herb wrote. "Even with two wins, we weren’t thrilled with the way our fall went and our showing in the (Division III) preview (at Keene Trace) did not help our case for an at large bid. I think the combo of playing last year and already seeing the course is a big advantage because you know that the competition will be high. But it’s also nice to know that it is attainable and we look forward to the challenge."