‘Nothing to hang our heads about’
Cal still very happy with season despite sudden end
MILTON, Ga. -- Moments after his team’s outstanding season had come to a sudden end short of the goal it had established for itself, Cal head coach Steve Desimone stood near the No. 2 green on the Crabapple Course at the Capital City Club and attempted to come to grips with the reality of it.
Cal senior Max Homa had just lipped out a 7-foot putt on a second playoff hole that would have extended his match against Thomas Pieters of Illinois. Instead, just like that, the match -– and Cal’s season –- was over.
Illinois moves on to face Alabama in Sunday’s national championship match, which has been moved up two hours to an 8 a.m. start in an effort to avoid inclement weather expected later in the day.
Despite entering the day as the top seed in match play, as the nation’s top-ranked team, and as the first team in modern NCAA history to win 11 of the first 13 tournaments it played in this season, Cal was packing up to go home.
“We just were not sharp [Saturday],” Desimone said. “They made some really clutch putts. … Every time I turned around, they were making putts a little more than we were. So hats off to them.
“When you have one day for a season, sometimes that carries you through -- and it certainly did for them [Saturday]. It’ll be a good match with them and Alabama [on Sunday], but I’m not going to hide my disappointment. We were looking forward to that one in a big way.”
It was the second consecutive season Desimone and his players tasted disappointment at the Division I Men’s Golf Championships. Cal lost in semifinal match-play last year, as well, falling to Alabama.
But this year was different, and everyone -- not only Desimone and his players -- seemed to sense it. Even winning Illinois head coach Mike Small said so after Saturday’s match.
“The record says it all. And they don’t dodge anybody, either. They play some great tournaments,” Small said. “I mean, they’ve got five guys ranked in the top 25 in the nation? That’s strong. I don’t know, when’s the last time that happened?”
Small added that when a team is ranked No. 1 nationally as Cal was virtually all season long, it can create an enormous amount of pressure.
“It’s amazing when a human being has expectations and people are up there shooting at you and coming at you. That can create a lot of pressure that you feel,” Small said. “We’ve had that on a smaller level at the Big Ten championship, and we persevered. But the depth here is a lot greater and there are a lot more great teams and players coming after you.”
Cal not only won 11 of its first 13 tournaments prior to the NCAA championships, but finished second and third, respectively, in the only two tournaments it did not win. Cal also earned the top seed in the match-play portion of this week’s tournament by beating everyone else during the three days of stroke play on the difficult par-70, 7,319-yard course.
“It’s hard to believe it’s over. I don’t know the next time a season like this is going to happen. It may happen next year, or it may not happen again for another 50 years,” Desimone said. “But let me tell you: There was nothing that happened [Saturday] that diminishes that. In my humble opinion, this is the best college golf team that’s ever played.
“When you only lose to four teams all year and you’ve beaten over 200, I don’t know what else you can say. I’m so proud of these guys. It’ll be a very rough afternoon and a tough few days, but what they’ve accomplished is going to live for a long time. Whether we won or we lost here, the season we had was unique in the history of college golf and we’re going to be able to celebrate that for a long time.”
So even in defeat, Homa echoed his coach’s belief that Cal remains a team to be remembered in a special, historic way in NCAA golf annals.
“To be honest, I don’t think there’s any doubt we had the greatest team ever assembled. We only lost four times this year,” Homa said. “This match-play format is tough. You have to be on every day and you have to have every player on, from top to bottom, in the match play. It’s just tough.
“We won the stroke play by six over the other 29 best teams in the country. … We have nothing to hang our heads about. But we just wanted one more day.”