It is commonplace for a student-athlete to redshirt as an underclassman. Asking a senior to sit out for an entire season is highly unusual.
Three seniors on the Malone team – Jay Hollifield, Nate Tarter and Tyler Light -- had a very good reason to do exactly that.
After winning the 2014 NCAA Division II Midwest/Central Super Regional by seven strokes to earn a spot in this week’s national championship, their sacrifice turned out to be one of the best decisions they ever made.The No. 11 Pioneers began their three-year transition from the NAIA to Division II in the summer of 2010. During this time frame, they were not eligible to participate in postseason play as a team. Only full NCAA members are allowed to take part in conference and national championship events.
This meant Hollifield, Light and Tarter would never get a chance to showcase their talents on one of the biggest stages in collegiate golf.
Seeing as Malone won all seven of its spring tournaments in 2012, head coach Ken Hyland felt it would be unfair for the three to close out their careers without making a run at the GLIAC championship and NCAA tournament.
He asked all three to sit out the 2012-13 season.
“That was the first team since I’ve been coaching that ever won all our tournaments in the spring,” says Hyland, now in his 42nd year coaching the Pioneers. “At that point, I thought we needed to see if they would be willing to be redshirted and see what they could do at the national level.”
As it turned out, the trio had already pondered the exact same thing. Hollifield and Tarter had classes to finish up in 2013-14 anyway. Light wanted nothing more than to join his teammates.
“We didn’t want the [2012-13 season] to just be a wash,” Tarter says.
“We were all excited about it, coming back as fifth-year seniors with an extra year of experience,” Hollifield says. “We were just really looking forward to [playing in the postseason] and seeing what we could do.”
Not being able to help the team win tournaments turned out to be much harder than any of them anticipated. They had plenty of time to improve their games, but it was difficult to focus on getting better with no immediate reward. Hyland noted the three competed in intra-squad events and played in several summer tournaments. However, it was not the same as traveling to events with their teammates.
All three would constantly text the team and follow the various tournaments online.
“It was tough. We wanted to play,” says Light, who is ranked No. 28 nationally. “We were cheering them on, texting them and seeing how they were doing. But it was just tough seeing them play without us.”
Much to Hyland’s relief – he says it would have been “a disaster” if the three failed to meet high expectations this season – the Pioneers are reaping the rewards of their three seniors’ selfless decision.
In its first year of postseason eligibility, Malone edged out Ashland and Ohio Dominican by one stroke to claim the 2013 GLIAC championship. Earlier this spring, Tarter and Light were named GLIAC Co-Players of the Year. Hollifield fell out of the five-man rotation briefly in the fall, but, according to his teammates, worked harder than anyone during the winter to return to the lineup.
As a team, the Pioneers have won six tournaments this season, which is tied for the second-most nationally.
Prior to Day 1 of the Division II national championship at The Meadows in Allendale, Michigan, the three could not help but feel validated.
“It made those weekends – where we weren’t playing in the tournaments and were back home practicing – worth it,” says Tarter, the No. 7 golfer in the country. “It just reinforced that we did the right thing. We worked and did the right things in that year off.”
Following an 18-over par 302 in Monday’s (May 19) opening round, Malone and still has as good of a shot as anyone to walk away with the title.
Only eight of the 20 teams will make the 54-hole cut for match play on Wednesday (May 21). As long as the Pioneers can maintain their composure on a golf course riddled with hazards, fescue and unforgiving rough, they should have no problems keeping their title hopes alive.
“We are quietly a confident group,” Tarter says. “We have all worked pretty hard and feel like we have yet to play our best golf. We will see if we can do that this week.”
They gave up an entire year for this opportunity. Good luck trying to send them home early.