As Coach Mike Small emerged from the clubhouse after meeting with his team at the 2017 NCAA Men’s Golf Championship, there was a small grin on his face as he approached us for post-round comments. His team had just lost to the eventual national champion Oklahoma Sooners, and had just embraced his departing player Edoardo Lipparelli for the last time as his head coach. Despite the somber tone of the moment, Coach Small spoke words of optimism for the future of his program:
“This is a young team that overachieved, and I’m really proud of these guys. This has been a great year. We’re going to pick up where we left off [next season], and keep doing what we do here at Illinois Golf. We’re a developmental program that’s sustained a high level of play over the last eight or nine years. We’ve got some guys that will grow and develop that will step into their roles and help this program continue to get better.”
Coach Small has seen close calls at the NCAA Tournament, as the Illini have finished the last three seasons in the Final Four. In fact, since the tournament format changed from stroke play to match play in 2009, the Illini have found themselves in the final bracket of match play more than any team in college golf. The closest ANY Illinois Golf team has come to winning a national championship was in 2013, when the Fighting Illini lost in the championship match to Alabama. As we approach the 2017 season, Illinois remains in the national spotlight ranked as the 5th best team in the college golf preseason. Last year, the Illini were ranked 10th heading into the 2016-17 campaign...but there was a LOT of uncertainty as to how the season would go.
After heartbreaking loss in the final four of the NCAA tournament in Eugene, the 2016-17 Illini said goodbye to graduating seniors Thomas Detry and Charlie Danielson. Juniors Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer were left at the helm, and only had Edoardo Lipparelli back from the starting roster a season prior. Illinois called upon their incoming freshman to make an early impact. Between Michael Feagles, Giovanni Tadiotto, Trevor Gold, and Brian Baumgarten, the Illini would need to find two guys to fill the gaps left by Danielson and Detry. Despite the starting roster looking particularly young, the Illini opened the season strong with three consecutive victories (including a win at the Illini Invitational). Both Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer collected Top 5 finishes at Olympia Fields in the fall of 2016, and freshman Giovanni Tadiotto won medalist honors at the Northern Intercollegate at Beverly in early October.
The team gained national exposure as they won their second consecutive East Lake Cup in early November. Golf Channel covered the entire event, and Illinois jumped back into the national spotlight being the only team to win the event in it’s two year history. All systems were go, and things looked to be back to normal as the team headed into the winter break.
After resting up in the mid-season break however, the Illini sluggishly opened their spring season in February and March with a 4th place and an 8th place finish in their first two events. Brian Baumgarten (who played solid golf in the fall) was not on his game to start the spring, and ultimately did not make the 5 man tournament roster. Junior Dylan Meyer found his stride and would win 2 of the last 3 events of the regular season AND won the individual Big Ten Championship (the team won their 8th conference championship in 9 years). Meyer’s red-hot play would come to a screeching halt however, as Meyer would be diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and was hospitalized for three nights before the NCAA Regional tournament. With Meyer playing while ill, the Illini rallied together to come back and qualify for the NCAA Tournament with a 3rd place finish.
With the NCAA tournament being hosted by the Northern Illinois Huskies, Illinois would compete for the national championship in Sugar Grove, IL in May of 2017. The national exposure was nothing but positive as Illini fans set an attendance record for the weekend, and the team flourished in the earlier rounds. The young Illini rode the momentum of playing in home territory, and Illinois found themselves in the final four once again where they eventually lost to Oklahoma (the eventual national champions). Edoardo Lipparelli declared he would be leaving Illinois at the end of the season to compete in his home country of Italy for eligibility in the 2022 Ryder Cup.
2017-18 Fall Season Preview
As Illinois heads into the 2017-2018 campaign, four of the five starters on last season’s tournament roster returns. The Illini welcome two new freshman to the roster this season, and look to utilize the experience gained from last season’s NCAA Tournament run to get out to an early start in the fall season. Illinois has scheduled five tournaments in the next few months, including the season opener at Olympia Fields Country Club this weekend in Olympia Fields, IL. Ranked #5 in the preseason, here’s a look at the 2017-2018 roster:
Dylan Meyer (SR)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 8
“I don't think anybody has got more attitude than Dylan Meyer. You can walk that swagger right into match play, and it's an extra club always on your side.” - Lanny Wadkins
Dylan Meyer is the highest ranked player nationally on this Illinois roster. After overcoming a bout with illness last season, Meyer has found a new training regiment that has helped him regain some lost distance off the tee. Meyer competed in the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour back in June, and made the cut in the Web.com Tour’s Lincoln Land Charity Championship where he tied for 63rd. After failing to defend his title at the Western Amateur Championship in Glencoe, IL, Meyer competed in the US Amateur to complete his summer of competitive golf.
Meyer heads into the 2017-18 season looking to defend his wins in the 3M Augusta Invitational, the Robert Kepler Invitational, and the Big Ten Individual Championship. His extremely bubbly and like-able personality makes him a fan favorite, and he will very likely be invited back to Fort Worth for the Ben Hogan award ceremony at the end of the season where he was a finalist last year.
Nick Hardy (SR)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 16
Nick Hardy has had a BUSY off-season, playing in seven events since the year ended in May. After accepting an invitation to play in the Arnold Palmer Cup in early June, Hardy competed in the Northeast Amateur Invitational where he posted a (-3) 273 to tie for 8th. Hardy backed that up with a T55 finish at the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic a month later, followed by a (-4) 280 that tied him for 6th at the Pacific Coast Amateur a week afterwards. Two weeks later, Hardy qualified for the Top 16 spots in the Western Amateur Championship where he posted the third best qualifying score of 273 (-11). After finishing in a tie for second at the Illinois Open Championship, Hardy competed in the US Amateur in the middle of August. Nick’s game is on a roll, and we expect him to have a solid senior season in 2017-18.
Michael Feagles (SO)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 259
Michael Feagles finished his 2016-2017 campaign on a roll. His play in the NCAA Tournament was a big reason why Illinois was able to qualify for the match play bracket, and Feagles could be a player we see jump into the national spotlight in 2017-2018. This summer, Michael has been busy competing in tournaments near his hometown of Scottsdale, AZ. Feagles finished in a tie for 24th at the Southwestern Amateur in Scottsdale, followed by a 21st place finish and match play qualification in the North and South Amateur Championship held at the famed Pinehurst #2. Michael moved back west to finish tied for 15th in the Sahalee Player’s Championship, followed by an appearance with Hardy and Meyer in the Western Amateur. Feagles showed last season he has tremendous upside, and we’re excited to see him continue to grow in 2017-2018.
Giovanni Tadiotto (SO)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 545
Gio is coming off of a solid freshman season for the Illini, as he was able to earn a victory at the Northern Intercollegate last October at Beverly. This summer, Gio has continued to gain experience has he competed in a total of six events in the off-season. He started his summer with a T65 finish in the Challenge Tour’s KPMG Trophy, followed by an appearance in the R&A’s Amateur Championship. Gio would continue to compete in the Belgian AND German International Championships, and would ultimately end his summer with an appearance in the Classic Omnium of Belgium in the middle of August. Like Feagles, Gio’s game has tremendous upside and has been a proven winner in collegiate events. We’re excited to see how much he’s improved from last season, and look forward to watching him grow as the season goes on.
Bryan Baumgarten (SO)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 1149
After playing in 7 events for Illinois last season, Bryan Baumgarten has continued to develop his game to join the starting tournament roster this season. His summer has been productive, as Baumgarten competed in 4 events. Like his teammate Feagles, Baumgarten competed in the Southwestern Amateur and also made an appearance at the Western Amateur. Bryan also competed in the California Amateur Championship AND Northern California Amateur Match Play Championship where he was a semifinalist. It’s very promising to see Bryan come into this season playing well, and we’re looking forward to seeing him make waves during tournament play.
Brendan O’Reilly (FR)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 1460
There was a LOT of excitement within the golf community when Brendan O’Reilly committed to the University of Illinois. The back-to-back state champion used his summer to gain some valuable national playing experience as he was invited to compete in the Terra Cotta Invitational in Florida, where he finished T49 for the week. O’Reilly returned home to finish in a tie for 13th at the Western Junior Amateur AND compete in the Illinois Open. O’Reilly has a decent chance to jump one of the three sophomores for a spot on the tournament roster this season, and we’re excited to see another recruit from the state of Illinois join the squad.
Varun Chopra (FR)
World Amateur Golf Ranking: 2890
The Urbana Uni High School graduate joins the Illini this season on the heels of a rock solid 2016 campaign. Chopra finished 4th in the IHSA State Championship last year, and competed in his second consecutive Illinois Open Championship this summer. The 2016-2017 All State Honoree a hometown favorite that will learn a lot from playing with this team in his freshman year. While we don’t anticipate him joining the tournament roster this season, Illinois will have some much needed depth with Chopra on the team.
With the season starting this weekend at Olympia Fields, it will be interested to see how this team starts the beginning of this season. Coach Small said it himself, this team overachieved last season, and experiencing the excitement, the pressure, and the grind that is the NCAA Tournament could be great fuel for a still semi-young team. Heck, there’s even a lot of pressure involving this team winning their fourth consecutive Big Ten Championship (9th in 10 years). The team leaders are undoubtedly Meyer and Hardy, but there’s going to be eyes on Feagles and Tadiotto to see if they step into a little bit of a “leadership” role with some of the younger players on the team. Leadership and team cohesion is what will help this team advance through the season, and there’s no doubt that Meyer and Hardy are the right guys to help make that happen.
Karsten Creek and the home of the Oklahoma State Cowboys awaits this Illini team if they are able to qualify for the national championship, and there is a high expectation that Illinois will be playing in the match play championship for the 5th year in a row. How will this team handle the pressure of trying to get there? Will Dylan stay healthy all season? Can Hardy continue to play tour-caliber golf? Which of the young-guns will step up and fill that open spot on the tournament roster?
There are a lot of questions heading into this season...but one thing remains the same. The goal is a national championship, and there are a lot of people locally and nationally that believe this could be the year that goal is achieved. Despite all of the questions and the speculation surrounding the upcoming season, one this is certain. We will be covering the Illinois Men’s Golf Team every step of the way, because we’re still a #GolfSchool.