The beginning of the season in any sport can be one of the most exciting times of the year. There’s fresh optimism about where team is heading, players come into the season fresh and ready to show off their games, and everyone gets to dream about how far their team can go. For Coach Small and the Illinois Fighting Illini however, it’s simply the first of three steps in a push towards the championship season:
“We use the fall to get better, improve, and win tournaments to build momentum.” said Small after the second round of the Illini Invitational. “Coming back into the fall, we come back together as a team to learn and share our games to build for the fall season. Getting some wins and establishing a ranking for the spring season builds momentum to push to our championship season. That’s Big Tens, regionals, and nationals.”
Coming back into the 2017 fall season for the Illini has been dictated by the players. Each of the seven guys on the team played six qualifying rounds of golf to determine their spots in the lineup for the season opener that was played last weekend at Olympia Fields.
Illinois finished fifth as a team, and used the event to learn more about the roster they have for this year as freshman Brendan O’Reilly and sophomore Bryan Baumgarten jumped into the starting tournament lineup. Coach Small talked about the process with who gets a spot in the starting rotation:
“I let them dictate the lineup in the fall. I didn’t pick them, the low 5 guys in qualifying play get the spots. I’ve had 2 national champions over the years that have come back and not make the lineup. There are no exemptions or coaches picks.”
What makes this process unique is just how competitive the team play can be BEFORE the guys set foot in a tournament. The benefit with this process is that players will be able to build their own “resume” of play that Coach Small and his staff can take into consideration when choosing the lineups later in the season. This means that the best players at the time will be the ones playing in tournaments. Internal competition is something that Coach Small believes makes the team better as the year goes on:
“Our main focus is to get better every day. We want to build momentum with our guys towards competing in national championships. That’s what we play for. It’s how the pros do it; they gravitate towards the majors. I think that’s a strong mindset for our program, and is important in building momentum heading into the spring.”
As the team heads into their next event in Cincinnati, the top six Illini will have a chance to compete in the team competition. Players that do not compete in the team competition play as individual competitors to gain valuable playing experience. Last week, sophomore Giovannni Tadiotto and freshman Varun Chopra were the individual representatives for Coach Small’s Illini. While the upcoming lineup has yet to be determined, we know the guys playing in the starting rotation have certainly earned those spots.