June 6, 2013
By Greg Archuleta
UNM Assistant Director of Communications
"I don't know how to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal ..."
In an age of instant formation where anyone can become famous, thanks to social media, the University of New Mexico men's golf team could be forgiven if it adopted the above quote by Will Ferrell in the movie, "Anchorman" in regards to its 2012-13 season.
The Lobos, after all, reached the Elite Eight in the NCAA Championship last week in Alpharetta, Ga. Around the UNM athletic department, that is kind of a big deal.
For one, 12th-year Lobo head coach Glen Millican understands the significance of what his 2012-13 team accomplished.
"This is probably the best season I've ever been a part of, for a lot of reasons," he said. "Last week, we were so wrapped up in the (NCAA Championship) that we probably didn't realize what we had accomplished, but I wanted our guys to know that they did some things this year that no Lobo team has ever done before. And we've had a pretty storied history."
A not-so-quick rundown of the team's accomplishments this season:
- Its fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championship ties for the second-best performance by a Lobo team (the 1973 team finished tied for fourth, and the 1979 and 2005 teams came in fifth. Millican coached the latter.)
- UNM won the NCAA Columbus Regional, and senior James Erkenbeck won the individual regional competition. The regional title was UNM's third all-time.
- The Lobos won the Mountain West Championship for the first time since 2006. The MW title was their fifth overall (all under Millican) and extended their own MW record for titles.
- They won the NCAA regional and the MW title in the same year for the first time in school history.
- UNM won five tournaments in 2012-13, its most since the 2004-05 season. The Lobos also had four runner-up results and finished in the top five in 13 of its 14 tournaments this season.
- Erkenbeck was named a PING All-America selection, as well as the Mountain West Player of the Year.
- Erkenbeck, senior John Catlin, sophomore Gavin Green and sophomore Victor Perez all made the PING All-West Region team, as well as the All-Mountain West team. The four conference selections are Mountain West and UNM records.
- Erkenbeck earned a spot on the United States Palmer Cup team - the Palmer Cup is a collegiate version of the Ryder Cup.
- Millican was a finalist for the Dave Williams Award, which goes annually to the national coach of the year in Division I.
- The Lobos won their own William H. Tucker Intercollegiate in September by 29 strokes, which are believed to be a tournament record.
- Erkenbeck also tied for the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters individual championship in March. Green won the Tucker Invitational by a stroke when he sank a 15-foot putt for birdie.
The season also included one nationally televised segment about the program (on the Golf Channel), as well as one of the wildest and most exciting days in program history during the final round of stroke play at the NCAA Championship.
"This is probably the best season I've ever been a part of, for a lot of reasons. Last week, we were so wrapped up in the (NCAA Championship) that we probably didn't realize what we had accomplished, but I wanted our guys to know that they did some things this year that no Lobo team has ever done before. And we've had a pretty storied history."
Glen Millican, UNM men's golf coach
UNM found itself tied for 27th place after the first day of nationals. Its 12-over 292 left it 22 strokes out of first place, 13 strokes out of the coveted eighth spot (the top eight teams after 54 holes qualified for stroke play) and just two strokes out of 30th and last place in the 30-team field.
The Lobos moved up to a 15th-place tie after shooting a 6-under 274 during the second round. They played among the 15 teams in the morning for the final stroke-play round and shot a 4-under 276 to move up to 12th place at the time.
Then, UNM had to wait for five hours to see if the teams ahead of them would fall back to them by day's end. Enough teams faltered for the Lobos to end up in a four-way tie for sixth place, causing a one-hole playoff to determine which three of the four teams left would advance to match play.
Nearly 12 hours after New Mexico teed off for the final stroke-play round, it secured a spot in match play against 2012 national runner-up Alabama.
The Crimson Tide came out on fire and defeated UNM 4-1. The Lobos would've been 2 under par as a team under a stroke-play format when Alabama clinched the match-play contest on the back nine.
Alabama went on to beat host Georgia Tech 3-0-2 in the semifinal matchup and Illinois 4-1 in the finals to win the championship. The Tided finished with an 11-2-2 record during match play.
"That makes it a little easier to take," Millican said. "When it was happening, we could've lost to the Ryder Cup team and it wouldn't have felt good. But (match play) had more to do with the great week Alabama was having."
As disappointed as the Lobos were in not advancing, consider the fact that Green was 13 years old the last time UNM advanced to the NCAA Championship (in 2007). Though the Lobos were the No. 18 team in the country in the preseason Golfweek.com/Sagarin rankings, they were hardly a household name in terms of being mentioned as an NCAA Championship match play candidate.
Five of the seven other teams that advanced to match play were ranked ahead of UNM in the preseason poll: Alabama, California, Texas, Georgia Tech and UNLV. The other two teams - Illinois and Arizona State - come from BCS programs. And Texas, California, UNLV and Arizona State are past national champions. Georgia Tech and Alabama previously have been national runners-up.
That the Lobos were one of the final eight teams standing? A huge deal.
The unassuming Millican said his players deserve all the praise for what they accomplished this year. The fivesome of Erkenbeck, Catlin, Green, Perez and senior Benjamin Bauch played together most of the year. Sophomore Sean Romero also played in a couple of tournaments for the Lobos in the fall.
The group finished with a 168-26-5 record against the schools they faced in their 14 tournaments - an 86.6 winning percentage. That's akin to the Lobo men's basketball team finishing a season with a 32-5 record.
"All the credit goes to the players," he said. "As coaches, we do everything we can to recruit the best players and then do everything we can to help those guys excel, but we don't hit any shots. They're the ones constantly working on their game, and the ones who turned in all the positive results week after week."
But a coach that has won five conference championships in 12 years must be doing something right.
"Coach always did a good job of keeping us focused on the present," Catlin said. "He never allowed us to get ahead of ourselves or get lazy."
Added Bauch, "Millican is a great coach who succeeded in allowing his players the opportunity to express their true potential as golfers."
The departing seniors soon will find out how far that golf potential takes them. Erkenbeck will play for Team USA in the Palmer Cup - a collegiate version of the Ryder Cup pitting American-born U.S. college players against European-born U.S. college players - beginning Friday in Wilmington, Del.
He hopes to turn professional in the fall.
Catlin will play in the Sunnehanna Amateur golf tournament from June 14-17 in Johnstown, Pa., and then will begin to plot a course for his quest to become a professional. Bauch also will sit down this summer to determine his next step.
In the meantime, the trio will have a little bit of time to reflect on their "big deal" season.
"I'm proud of the fact that we were able to prove our worth against the top teams in the nation," Bauch said. "I think we helped reassert New Mexico as a strong golf program."
Catlin said he would remember the goals the team set before the season and how it accomplished those goals.
"Winning the conference championship was a pretty cool moment," he said. "It was awesome to finally play well in that tournament. We played our best golf this year."
Erkenbeck, too, cherished the team's ability to reach new levels of success.
"All the things the team accomplished, that's the bigger picture," he said. "I think a lot of the accolades I got were due to the team doing so well. All the success we had as a team is what made the year so special."
Perez and Green will return as juniors in 2013-14 with the understanding of how much the last senior class raised the bar in terms of expectations for the program.
"It was great to see James, Ben and John get to match play to cap their careers," he said. "And it was a great experience for Gavin and me to go through. I had never felt that much enjoyment to play as I did (at the NCAA Championship). It definitely makes us want to come back next year."
Added Green, "Now we know what it takes to get to this level. We had a great, great season, but this will teach us what it's like to play in an (NCAA Championship) atmosphere."
But with the higher expectations that have been established comes the notoriety and recognition of that success upon which Millican hopes his program can build.
"A season like this can do nothing but help us," he said. "Our program is more recognized now, nationally, than it was before. I hope it translates into more success - in winning, in recruiting in fundraising."
As big a deal as the season was, Millican knows what lies ahead for his next task: making sure that 2012-13 isn't a once-in-a-lifetime deal.