When Georgia Southern Athletics comes to mind for fans, the first thought is usually of football championships or perhaps raucous atmospheres and big wins for the baseball and basketball teams.
But there’s another Eagle squad that routinely clocks in even higher in the national rankings each season.
Continuing the school’s impromptu “Tuesday Talks” summer series, new athletic director Jared Benko sat down with men’s golf coach Carter Collins to discuss what makes the team a top-tier contender each season.
The men’s golf team was last seen on the links at Forest Heights Country Club on March 12. The team - along with 11 other squads - was getting in its final practice round prior to what would have been the 41st annual Schenkel Invitational, only to have the tournament called off later that night due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The sudden stop to play put the end to what was shaping up to be a late-season charge by a talented Eagles squad, but morale remains high months after the shutdown.
“It was definitely a unique situation,” Collins said. “But our guys have been able to practice and play recently and we have a lot of tournaments coming up in July. We’re also looking forward to three new freshmen entering our program in the fall, to go along with Brett Baron and Jake Maples who will return as seniors. We’re going to have a talented team with a lot of internal competition and guys pushing one another to be better.”
Georgia Southern made some huge waves last season as it advanced all the way to the NCAA championships, reserved for just 30 teams.
A month prior, the Eagles weren’t even sure that they had any postseason future. During his talk with Benko, Collins recounted moments from the 2019 Sun Belt championships and subsequent NCAA regional at Stanford that are among his favorite memories as a coach.
“We were on the bubble as far as getting an at-large bid to the regionals heading into the final round of stroke play (at the Sun Belt tournament),” Collins said. “We knew that we needed a big day. Our guys turned in two rounds of 65, two rounds of 66 and we had to throw out a round of 67. We still get on Colin Bowles about that 67.
“At the regional, we were just really solid. It was very impressive for us to play so well in a great field so far from home. The only thing that didn’t work out was the sight-seeing. We couldn’t get to Alcatraz or find parking at the Redwoods Forest. We missed a team photo at the Golden Gate Bridge and I think we got a picture of the ‘Full House’ house as we sped by it at 45 miles per hour. I’m definitely not a good tour guide.”
Collins praised the strides his team was able to make this season as the Eagles won two of the six tournaments in which they played, with Maples also winning the individual tournament hosted at the GSU course in February. He expected to have a strong team, but was unsure of what to expect after the departure of Steven Fisk, who finished second in the nation individually in 2019.
“Steven was such a leader and great player,” Collins said. “At first, there were a lot of guys kind of looking around the room, wondering who would step up. What made this season great was that all of our older guys took that step forward and saw how special we could be with everyone taking leadership.”
Benko and the Georgia Southern athletic department have been working hard and crunching the numbers over the last two months. Where other schools of similar size and budget have been forced to cut entire teams, Georgia Southern has kept its entire slate of teams intact, is covering tuition for spring sports seniors who wish to return for their NCAA-approved additional season and is working to keep things as normal as possible for all of its athletes.
“I’m really excited about our ‘Finish Strong’ campaign and seeing our fans donate to help out returning seniors in all of these sports,” Collins said. “I’m also excited to get started on 2021. We might be looking at some tournaments closer to home (to deal with financial and public health constraints), but we’re always going to be looking to improve our strength of schedule and play in challenging tournaments.”