By the time the final regional lineup for the NCAA men’s championships were revealed, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff golfers and coaches knew where they were headed, and it’s not far.
UAPB was given the 14th and final seed for the regional tournament to be held May 15-17 at Jimmie Austin OU Club in Norman, Okla. UAPB qualified automatically by winning its first Southwestern Athletic Conference championship last month, and that was cause for supporters, coaches from other sports and men’s basketball players to pack the video/audio room of the STEM building for the high-noon watch party Wednesday.
The suspense the supporters felt after each passing round did nothing to subdue their excitement just to see the name “Arkansas-Pine Bluff” appear on Golf Channel’s live selection show. But for the 150th anniversary of the university, the moment is described as a "Golden Experience."
“It’s incredible,” freshman All-SWAC performer Angel Perez said. “We’re going to play against the best in the nation. It’s going to be a great experience. We’re going to learn a lot and we’re going to play very well.”
Golden Lions Coach Roger Totten sees a big advantage in the nearly 6-hour trek to the Oklahoma City suburb.
“It’s closer,” he said. “We have more preparation here on campus before we leave. Being close is always an advantage.”
Preparation for the NCAAs won’t change from any other tournament the Lions have geared for, Totten added.
“We’re going to practice, condition and lift weights the same way since we did the very first day,” Totten said. “We won’t change a thing.”
Three of the six regionals each include 13 teams and 10 individuals not on those teams, while the Norman Regional and two others each have 14 teams and five individuals not associated with those teams. The top five teams and the low individual not connected to those teams from each regional will advance to the national finals May 26-31 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.
UAPB has the top three finishers in the SWAC tournament, junior Patrick Mwendapole, freshman Ismael Garcia and sophomore Li Su.
Mwendapole, from Nigeria, won medalist honors by 6 strokes in the conference tournament at Flowood, Miss. Garcia, from Mexico, was the freshman medalist and overall runner-up. Su, from Australia, was two strokes behind Garcia.
UAPB spokesman Cameo Stokes confirmed the Lions set a SWAC record for the largest margin of victory in the tournament, 29 strokes over second-place Alabama State (2-under 862 to 27-over 891 for three rounds).
“We earned it because we did it the right way,” Totten said. “We earned it through practice and preparation, and we did everything off the course like going to class. Everything we got, we earned it. We were one of the best teams out there, so we earned it.”
Texas Tech earned the top seed in the Norman Regional, followed by (in seeding order) host and Big 12 Conference champion Oklahoma, Alabama, Ole Miss, Wake Forest, Duke, Louisiana State, North Florida, Colorado, Kansas, North Carolina-Wilmington (Colonial Athletic Association), Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt Conference) and Princeton (Ivy League), the last three of whom also qualified automatically. The qualifying individuals include Luke Gutschewski of Iowa State, Nathan Petronzio of Southern Methodist, Bret Gray of Sam Houston State, Vicente Marzilio of North Texas and James Swash of Louisiana Tech.
“In golf, it’s just a matter of how we play,” Perez said. “Everything can happen. The 14th team can be there and win it.”
Two other teams and an individual from Arkansas also made the NCAA field.
The University of Arkansas received a No. 6 seed in the Salem, S.C., Regional at The Cliffs at Keowee Falls, and Ohio Valley Conference champion UA Little Rock earned the No. 9 seed in the Bath, Mich., region at Eagle Eye Golf Club.
Luka Naglic of Arkansas State is seeded eighth in the Auburn, Ala., Regional at the Auburn University Club.
Other regionals are held at Bear’s Best Las Vegas and The Institute Golf Club in Morgan Hill, Calif.