HARTSVILLE, S.C – After chasing down other teams with bull's-eyes on their backs, the Coker men's golf team has earned a target of its own. Conference championships will do that for a team.
Coker brought home the 2012 Conference Carolinas trophy after erasing an 18-shot deficit on the final day to win by one stroke. The victory earned the Cobras a berth in the NCAA Regional tournament, their first trip to the event in three years.
"Last year we really set the pace," said head coach Tommy Baker, who enters his sixth season at Coker. "We struggled through the middle of the season but clicked towards the end. Winning the conference was a wonderful, exciting occasion. It was a prime example of how we can really grind out a tournament."
The Cobras carried the momentum from last spring to the fall season. They finished in the top five in all four events, including two third-place finishes. The strong fall also earned the team some national recognition – a No. 8 ranking in the country by Golfstat and No. 14 in the Golf World/Nike Golf Division poll for Division II.
"I thought the fall was a big boost for the guys heading into the spring," said Baker. "It showed us where we could be and where we could go."
Despite the label of conference champions, the league coaches voted Coker third in the preseason polls. Baker doesn't mind that, though, because he uses it for some added motivation for his team.
This year, Baker's lineup card is arguably as versatile as it's been in his six years at the helm. He has nine players, so there are options for the five starting spots each time out.
"We have great depth on the roster," Baker said. "It gives us options and also brings some very healthy competition in practice. It's good motivation to beat your teammate to get that spot and hold on to it."
Coker lost four-year players Diego Polo and Jared Crane to graduation from last season. First team all-conference player Jake Murphy returns and is the team's lone senior. Along with Murphy, juniors Josh Clay and Matt Kreider, and sophomores Aaron Beebe, Luke Coates and Christopher Fuga return. The newcomers are sophomore Andrew Taske, a transfer from Northern Kentucky University, and freshmen Blake Baysden and Nicklaus Kennedy.
The tone was set with the conference title in 2012. How the Cobras follow it up this season may come down to how they handle being prey instead of hunters. To repeat they must remain patient and take it, literally, one shot at a time.
"We definitely have targets on our backs," Baker said. "The bull's-eye has shifted. I tell them all the time – if you're going up the stairs, you go one at a time. When you start skipping steps that's when you start falling on your face. We have to go through the process each and every shot.
"Repeating is certainly a goal, but we have many, many checkpoints that we need to hit before we get there."
The men's golf season begins Feb. 11 at the Spring Kickoff Intercollegiate in Orange Park, Fla.