After a successful start to its season, the men’s golf team will look to close out Fall Term on a high note this weekend at the Viking Fall Shootout hosted by Augustana College. After almost a decade of relative decline, the men’s golf program at Knox is looking to complete its return to the historic success it sustained for years.
Coach K.C. Harding, hired in 2013, has had to help rebuild a struggling program with a proud history.
“When I took the program over, we had three players who were all seniors. The next year we had a [single] player. This year, when I get my dual sport athletes in the spring, we’ll have 15 players,” Harding said.
A big reason Harding was able to recruit nine new freshman players for this season was the fact that his position at Knox is now full-time.
“I went full-time starting a little over a year ago, a little after the recruiting season. As a part-time coach, I wasn’t able to spend the time recruiting that I needed,” Harding said. “We’re very lucky to have welcomed nine freshmen from four different countries, including the United States.”
Though the team was struggling, several freshmen who chose Knox, including Luis Liendo, did so specifically to return Knox golf to its earlier glory days.
“Instead of going to a school where winning is what they’re used to, why not go to a school where I can, along with other freshmen, help to bring that back? I wanted the opportunity to ignite the return of this program,” Liendo said.
For freshman Tijn de Jong, coming to play golf at Knox represented his dream scenario.
“I wanted to combine golf and studies. I wouldn’t say that’s not possible back home in the Netherlands, but here you can be a student-athlete instead of a student then an athlete,” de Jong said.
As a returning player, junior Duncan Wheeler has enjoyed the influx of talent and depth for the program, especially after a couple of difficult seasons.
“Last year we had to search the college to fill a full team to compete and this year we have a much bigger team,” Wheeler said.
After struggling even to find a team in recent seasons, now the program faces unique issues. Harding admits that it will be difficult to decide who will play for the varsity squad in the spring, as several dual sport athletes will be joining the group.
“It’ll be nice to have them back, but they will have a tough road ahead of them to make the varsity roster. That’s obviously a good problem to have,” he said.
To freshman Jason White, the work the fall team has put in will give them an advantage come Spring Term.
“We have all gotten a taste of how close we’ve been. The taste hasn’t been good yet, because we haven’t won, but we’re hungry. They’re going to have to show that they are as hungry as us when they come play,” White said.
This ability to compete against each other in practice has allowed the players to challenge themselves to take their game to the next level.
“At practice, we all compete against each other and push each other, but at tournaments we’re all on the same team and support each other,” White said.
Harding has seen a distinct shift in the mentality the team has going into a tournament this year versus his past seasons with the team.
“We have been competing at tournaments that before we had no opportunity to compete. Now when we step off the bus at a tournament, we come to win whereas before we didn’t have the players necessary to focus on that,” he said.
After this weekend, the team will start focusing its attention on improving for its competitive spring season. Because the winter weather will prevent them from practicing on their normal course, the team will be forced to stay indoors.
In past years, that meant spending time in the weight room or not practicing at all. This year, however, the team will be utilizing the brand new indoor practice space located in the basement of the T. Fleming Fieldhouse, including an indoor golf simulator.
To Wheeler, this new facility gives Knox a huge advantage over its spring opponents.
“This new facility is one of the nicest of any division in all of Illinois É I think we’ll be ready right when the weather gets better. I don’t think we’ll need any time once we can go back outside to adjust. We’ll have that big head start,” he said.
Come spring season, the team will have a single goal: winning the Midwest Conference championship for the first time since 2008. Wheeler thinks the team is capable of much more, even with such a young roster.
“I think we’ll shoot for higher goals than just winning conference this year. I want to see at nationals how we can match up against the best in the country,” Wheeler said.
The team does not lack confidence, as White notes that he believes “this team could win any tournament we go to.”
For de Jong, winning the early tournaments in the spring season will announce the return of Knox golf to the rest of the division.
“Winning this year is basically to show everyone that Knox is back on the same level where it used to be and watch out for us,” he said.
After nearly a decade in which the team barely stayed afloat, Harding has managed to bring life back to the Knox men’s golf team. Before shifting to this position at Knox, Harding was the coach at Carl Sandburg College, also in Galesburg, where he found great success.
“I left a program that I had taken to three national tournaments in my four years when I was there … When I came to Knox, I basically came to empty closets Ð great success in its history, but it’s hard to sell on history,” Harding said. “We now have things that distinguish ourselves from other programs. We had to prove that we had made a commitment to this program.”
Wheeler has seen this transformation first-hand after spending two years as part of the struggling program.
“This is the year I see the program really turning around. It won’t just be me and [senior] Pat [Martin] anymore. We were the only two who actually got recruited to play golf here,” he said.
After successfully recruiting nine new players to the team, Harding has been happy with their performance thus far.
“I kind of challenged these kids that they could go to any school, or come here and be the face of the group that turned around the most historic and successful program in this school and in the Midwest Conference,” he said.
In search of the program’s 30th conference championship, Harding thinks that this team can do much more than just a MWC title.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg. I really see us not just being a big deal in the Midwest Conference, but a team that can bring us national attention. This can be a program that we can see what we’re doing and have it be something we can proudly rest our hat on,” Harding said.