For the first time ever, the SEC men's golf championship this past weekend featured match play on the final two days of the event, and it created some extra excitement for all the teams involved.
South Carolina was one of those teams, and the Gamecocks were in eighth place entering the second and final round before match play on Saturday. Usually, there's nothing to fight for if you're down near the middle of the pack during the tournament.
However, the Gamecocks stepped it up and finished strong to claim the fifth seed in match play. South Carolina shot a 280 (E) in the final round to jump three spots.
"What was really neat about it was in the past, fifth or six was fine and you just get on down the road," head coach Bill McDonald said. "But to have something to play for on the back nine, I think there were seven teams that had a chance on the back nine to make the top eight. That atmosphere was really good."
With a team that has no seniors on it, and only two players who had ever played at the SEC Championship before, the experience over the weekend was extremely beneficial for the team. The Gamecocks will soon be picked for the field at the NCAA Championships, where the pressure will be amped up even more.
The fact that the young golfers received a taste of what it would be like can only be beneficial down the road.
"It should give them the confidence that they can compete at the highest level," McDonald said. "Regionals will just be straight up, three rounds of stroke play, but at the same time, the pressure they felt coming down the stretch to make match play at the conference (championship) is something that should pay off for them."
Jamie Wilson was one of the main reasons South Carolina was able to vault into match play down at the Sea Island Golf Club in St. Simons Island, Georgia. The freshman shot a third round 66 (-4), the lowest 18-hole score of his young career, to finish in the top 20 individually. It was the lowest score out of any Gamecock during the weekend, and an impressive feat for a freshman.
"When he's focused and on his game, he can really play at a high level," McDonald said. "That was amazing golf. He's been a real bright spot on the year, for sure."
Keenan Huskey was dealing with a hairline fracture in his arm during the tournament, but was still able to finish in a tie for ninth. Because of the amount of golf played over that weekend, Huskey was sore by Sunday. He will rest up for the NCAA Championships that begin on May 15.
South Carolina was edged by No. 6 Florida, 3-2, in an extremely tight match in the quarterfinals. Scott Stevens and Ryan Stachler picked up wins while sophomore Will Miles nearly pulled off an upset over Florida's Alejandro Testi, the individual SEC champion. The matchup between those two players went into sudden death, and after a par on the 10th hole Testi was able to pick up the win on the 12th hole.
McDonald said the Gamecocks had a stressful spring because they played six events, which is one more than they usually play. After receiving an almost two-week break before the SEC Championship, the players have mostly recovered from the busy schedule.
"We looked a lot more fresh and focused at (SECs), but I still think the team needs a little bit of rest," McDonald concluded. "That's always a tricky thing this time of year, but we'll get through finals and then next week start practicing."
**Story by Kyle Heck/photo by Allen Sharpe and Jenny Dilworth**