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Golf: Making the turn – Ragin’ Cajun golf squad – Coach didn’t expect good things so quickly

Dan McDonald, Daily Advertiser, Nov. 13, 2013

UL golf coach Theo Sliman expected some good things from this year’s edition of the Ragin’ Cajun golf squad. He just didn’t think it would happen so quickly.

He really didn’t expect a team with four sophomores and two freshmen in the top six to hit the winner’s circle in its first-ever event, but that’s what the Cajuns did in capturing the Sam Hall Intercollegiate in Hattiesburg, Miss., to start the fall season.

The squad added two more top-four finishes to end the four-tournament fall, and goes into the spring season with a legitimate chance at contending in the Sun Belt Conference and cracking the field for the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s not to say it shocked me,” Sliman said of the fall success, “but to be honest I thought it would have taken a little bit longer to develop with such a young bunch. We knew coming into the fall that they were very talented, but I’ve been very impressed with how they’ve adapted to the college scene.”

The UL team took a fourth-place finish in the prestigious David Toms Intercollegiate at LSU during the fall, and matched that finish in Arkansas State’s Fall Beach Classic in Gulf Shores, Ala., two weeks ago. Of course, in between, the Cajuns finished 11th of 11 teams in an NCAA Regional Preview in Columbia, Mo., giving a prime example of what can happen with a young group.

But Sliman said that the final scores and the results aren’t the most important thing, especially during the fall season.

“We never really focus on results,” he said. “Our philosophy is about process, about patience, and about doing what you have to do in order to get better. Good golf takes care of the results, and how you get to good golf is stay in the present, work hard in the off-season and have a plan to reach your goals.

“We won that first tournament, but we don’t look at winning as something that would adjust our goals. We had both extremes in the fall … we won the first week and finished dead last in the next, but that didn’t change our goals.”

The fall featured a standout series of tournaments from first-time freshman Fernando Cruz Valle, who finished tied for fifth in Hattiesburg, tied for third at the David Toms meet and individual second at the Fall Beach meet. His scoring average of 70.91 ranked him 38th nationally and sixth in the NCAA region.

“With such a young group, it’s very satisfying to have a freshman make his mark on the team as a leader,” Sliman said. “I firmly believe that will manifest itself even more in the spring and make each and every one of us better.”

The Cajuns had three first-time performers in its regular top six, with transfer Haraldur Mangus and redshirt freshman Jason Noto seeing their first action. The three returnees – Ross Davis, Thomas Strandemo and Christian Verrougstraete – are all sophomores, with Davis and Strandemo regular parts of last year’s lineup but Verrougstraete playing in only three events in 2012-13.

“With all those young guys, that first win was tremendous,” Sliman said. “It was huge for their confidence level, but also for the chemistry on the team. Winning college tournaments is hard to do … I still remember the ones we won when I was a player, and the bond and the chemistry it sparked. It set the tone early and set up some very promising chemistry with this group.”

The win and the other two high finishes were key both in the national rankings – the biggest factor in NCAA Tournament selection – but it also helped toward satisfying one relatively-new NCAA requirement. In order to make the NCAA field, except for automatic qualifiers from conference tournament winners, a team has to have a winning percentage better than .500 against all teams it faces during the fall and spring seasons. In other words, a team has to finish ahead of more teams than it finishes behind over the course of an entire year.

“Wins certainly help there,” Sliman said, “but that last place at Columbia really hurt. Every time you finish ahead of a team is important because it’s who they go on to beat as well.”

The Cajuns will have plenty of chances to do that in a spring season full of challenges. The seven-tournament spring season begins Feb. 10-11 at the Oak Hills Invitational in San Antonio, Texas, and is one of several quality-field events leading up to the Sun Belt Conference Championships in late April.

“Just about every event we’re playing in the spring has a top-caliber field,” Sliman said. “We’re going to have many opportunities to pick up multiple wins from teams that are ranked higher than us. We have to have the mind-set that we’re ready to pounce on some of those opportunities.”

(“Making the Turn” appears each Wednesday in the Daily Advertiser. Clubs, courses and individuals with information about local golf events may email Dan McDonald, editorial director at Golfballs.com, at danmcdonald@cox.net, FAX to (337) 857-8763 or call (337) 857-8754 and leave a message with phone number. Listen to the “Making the Turn” radio show each Wednesday from 8-9 a.m. on ESPN Sports Radio 1420.)