The Prairie Fire men’s golf team withstood a late charge from defending champion Monmouth last Saturday to win the Midwest Conference Championship. With the victory, Knox earned a berth at the NCAA Division III Championship next week in Braselton, Georgia.
From the get-go, the three-day tournament played out almost exactly how Knox had hoped. After keeping in contention on day one, the Fire took control during the second round. Carding seven scores of 82 or less, Knox lead by 10 strokes going into the last day.
And while Saturday’s scores and the final results were certainly closer than anyone on the team would have liked, the guys took their coach’s advice to “just play,” and in swirling winds that made it impossible to approach the course conservatively, the Prairie Fire edged out the Fighting Scots by six strokes.
“We knew that if we stayed in it, Monmouth would start to push and break down mentally, exactly like they did,” said senior David Marquardt, who claimed first-place medalist honors in the tournament. Beating out his closet competitor by nine strokes, Marquardt shot rounds of 72, 74, & 78.
“An individual championship and a trip to nationals is a wonderful end to David’s phenomenal season and career,” head coach C.J. Rugh said. “But he’s also a great leader, and I’m sure the team’s victory means more to him.”
As such, Marquardt, the Fire’s captain, was quick to take focus off his first-place finish.
“This was a complete team effort,” he said. “Everyone had a score that counted at least one of the days.”
None counted more than those of sophomore Kevin Foerster, whose 80, 81, & 86 rounds earned him all-conference honors along with Marquardt. Foerster, a former baseball player in his first year of playing competitive golf, tied for tenth overall in the tournament.
“Kevin just gets better every week,” Rugh said. “Considering his experience, he’s exceeded our expectations and provided us with an excellent second scorer.”
Sophomore transfer Taylor Mueller carded a pair of 80s for the first two days en route to a 22nd overall finish. Mueller, the Fire’s third scorer, also provided one of the tournament’s most memorable moments halfway through day three.
On the challenging par-3 eighth hole, Mueller’s Monmouth opponent hit his tee-shot about 10 feet from the hole and began to celebrate. Knowing that the Scots were beginning to make their charge and unsure as to whether the Fire were still in first place, Mueller stayed calm. He proceeded to land his ball a foot from the pin and make birdie.
“On those last two days, no matter what Monmouth did, we responded stroke for stroke, Taylor’s shot on eight being the most obvious example,” said freshman Kevin Morris, who posted three solid rounds as the team’s fourth scorer. “They threw their best punches at us and we punched right back.”
Senior Arjun Rao and sophomore Bryce Goodman also competed, finishing 28th and 34th overall, respectively.
Coach Rugh now has three Midwest Conference Championships, two as a coach and one as a player on the 2003 team that also claimed top honors. Rugh, in his third year coaching the Prairie Fire, said that this championship was easily the most meaningful of his three because the team was not expected to do this well.
“We knew what we had, but there were certainly doubters in the conference,” he said. “After all we went through with inconsistency, terrible weather and disappointing finishes earlier this season, these guys deserve this. This means a lot more than previous championships when extremely talented and favored Knox squads were pretty much expected to win.”
As a team, the 2008 incarnation of the Prairie Fire had never finished better than fifth in a tournament. Monmouth had also beaten Knox at all four of the teams’ meetings this season.
Nevertheless, the Fire’s plan was to win when it counted, and they did exactly that.
“What this year’s team lacked in talent, we made up for in mental toughness and the will to better ourselves every week,” said Marquardt, who previously won a championship his freshman year as a member of the 2004 team. “I am so proud of these guys for working hard and staying confident week after week.”
The championship is the 29th in school history and team’s 20th since 1982. Marquardt’s individual victory is the also the 20th time a Knox golfer has won top honors at the tournament. As of a 2005 rule change, the winner of the MWC receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III National Championship. Although both are thrilled to go to nationals, Rugh and Marquardt are unsure how the Prairie Fire will do at the four-day tournament.
“The golf team hasn’t been to nationals since 1988, and we’ve only ever played against three of the schools at the tournament before, so we’ll have to see,” Rugh said. He later added that a national championship is not the anticipated result of the tournament but that it would be “pretty sweet.”
“Our number one expectation is to have a great time no matter how we play,” Marquardt said. “After that the goal is to make the cut. We will have to shoot some of the same scores as at conference but do it on more difficult courses.”
To make the cut at Chateau Elan Resort’s two courses, the Prairie Fire must score in the top 15 schools after round two of the 35-team championship. The team takes off Saturday for the tournament, which concludes next Thursday. Most likely the weather in Georgia will be a refreshing change from the harsh midwestern conditions the guys have golfed in all year.
“We’re sure that once they find out we are coming the weather will turn cold, windy and rainy,” Marquardt said. “But if it doesn’t, we are all excited about playing in perfect conditions and breaking out the shorts and short sleeves.”