June 25, 2009
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
There are places that coach Glen Millican just naturally expects his University of New Mexico Lobos golf program to go: to the top of leader boards, to the NCAA playoffs.
After a hiccup season of 2007-08, Millican's Lobos -- paced by sensational senior Steve Saunders and fab freshman James Erkenbeck -- roared back into the 2009 NCAA playoffs. The Lobos have missed NCAA regional play only once since the NCAA introduced that format in 1989.
"We have expectations with this program and we achieved many of those expectations this year," said Millican. "We were much more on track with our expectations and with our potential. We had a respectable season and our guys got a taste of what they need to do in big tournaments in order to win or advance."
Saunders, Erkenbeck and senior-to-be Nick Geyer were great examples of what Millican expects on the course - Lobos at the top of leader boards.
Saunders, the Mountain West Conference 2009 Golfer of The Year, picked up two individual wins during the 2009 campaign with medalist honors at the Arizona State Invitational and at the MWC Championships.
Saunders, a 2009 Ping All-American, was sensational and dominant at the MWC Championships held in Tucson, Ariz. The senior set MWC tourney records for lowest 18-hole card (64), lowest 36-hole card (133) and lowest 54-hole total (204). He also established a MWC record for margin of victory at four strokes.
Saunders ran away from the MWC field in the second round by carding a tourney-record tying 64. The La Cueva High product had a 71.89 stroke average as a senior.
"You can see what kind of season Steve had based on all his awards," said Millican. "To be the conference Player of The Year and to be a Ping All-American is incredible. Steve will be an All-American and an Academic All-American in the same year. That's a hard thing to do.
"He had one of the most impressive seasons ever as a Lobo. He is the overall deal, the complete package of what you look for in a student-athlete on the course and in the classroom."
The Lobos also got a solid course and classroom performance from senior Jon Sauer, who was an ESPN The Magazine Academic All-American and also was the Lobo Club Men's Scholar-Athlete of The Year.
"Jon played in every tournament for us," said Millican. "He was a solid player on the course all year and he had some incredible academic awards. You also look for leaders in the classroom and Jon stepped up there and showed our guys what it takes to achieve in the classroom. He left his mark here just like Steve (Saunders) did."
If there is a heir apparent to Saunders, it just might be Erkenbeck, who was the No. 2 Lobo behind Saunders at the MWC tourney and in NCAA regional play. The confident and hard working freshman also notched his first collegiate win at the John Burns Invitational in Hawaii and didn't look a bit like a freshman in closing out this win.
Erkenbeck's final round in Hawaii didn't show any signs of rookie panic. He went into the last 18 holes in eighth place and coolly carded a 7-under 65. He went two-under par over the final three holes to grab the win.
"James gave us a nice shot in the arm all season," said Millican. "Anytime you have a new guy who comes in and has success right away and asserts himself as one of the better players on the team, it gets everybody's attention. It motivates the rest of the guys to work hard and get better. James has a lot of ability and has a great work ethic."
The Lobos also got an individual win from senior-to-be Nick Geyer at the National Invitational Tournament in Tucson. Geyer opened play with a 6-under-par 66 and ran to a 54-hole win with a 9-under card. He was named Golf World's College Player of The Week after that winning effort.
"Nick got his first win at Tucson and had a real solid season for us," said Millican. "I think he gained a lot of valuable experience and is in position to have a great senior year."
The Lobos won the NIT by seven shots over host Arizona. It was UNM's first team win since the 2006 William H. Tucker title.
"We had a respectable season and our guys got a taste of what they need to do in big tournaments in order to win or advance."
Lobo golf coach Glen Millican
The 2009 MWC title chase was a dogfight and the Lobos were in the fight up until the final holes when TCU and San Diego State marched into a sudden-death playoff. The Lobos were only four shots back of the two leaders at the end of 54 holes.
The Lobos' consistent play returned them to the NCAA playoffs. UNM missed advancing to the NCAA Championships by a single shot. Saunders shot a 3-under 69 on the final day and finished in the No. 7 slot. Erkenbeck finished in the 24th spot.
"We feel good about how we played at regionals, but it's tough to come up a shot short," said Millican. "We played well and probably played well enough to advance, but sometimes you have to play great in order to keep playing."
Millican obviously loses some talent and leadership with the graduation of Saunders and Sauer, but there is solid experience coming back in Geyer, Erkenbeck and junior-to-be Tom Carlson.
"We named Tom our most improved player the past two years," said Millican. "That's a compliment to how hard he works. He takes advantage of his strengths and plays real solid golf for us. He filled a spot for us and never let go of it. He added to our depth and made us a very strong golf team.
"We were happy with a lot of the things we did this year, but we expect to make more strides next year. Our team was much more competitive this season and a lot of that is because we were more competitive within the team. Things are looking up and the guys are working hard to get better."