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17 May 2007
Willett and Friends Ready for NCAAs

By Al Muskewitz
Star Sports Writer

Reprinted here in its entirety.

JSU sophomore Danny Willett qualified for the 2006 NCAA tournament individually. This year, because the Gamecocks won the OVC tournament, Willett's teammates will join him at the NCAAs.
Photo: Courtesy of Jacksonville State

Danny Willett's first experience in the NCAA Golf Championship, in 2006, was enjoyable enough, but he said he expects an even better time this year.

That's because he's bringing the rest of the band with him.

A year ago, Willett qualified for the NCAA regionals as an individual, but the sophomore and all his Jacksonville State teammates made it this time by winning the Ohio Valley Conference championship.

The Gamecocks get an early start, going off at 7 a.m. Eastern time today in the East Regional at the Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta. They're seeded 19th and will play with Louisiana-Lafayette and St. John's the first two rounds.

“It should be a lot better (this year),” Willett said. “Last year was all right, but it wasn't the same feel. It's always good to be on your own because (golf) is an individual sport, but there are occasions where … it's good to have all the guys there.

“I don't know if it's easier, but it'll definitely take a little bit of pressure off going as a team. Hopefully, it'll be the right kind of atmosphere to go play and go play well.”

Going it alone in 2006 at Lake Nona, Willett shot 10-over-par 226 (77-72-77) and finished tied for 68th. It wasn't because he didn't have the safety net of his team around him, although that might've soothed some feelings after the 9 he took on the par-4 11th the last day.

“Last year I wasn't ready,” he said. “It was good to get there, but I didn't do what I wanted to when I got there.

“I finished third (at the OVC), but my game wasn't there. I had a couple weeks between and tried to do some things to get it there, but they didn't really click in time and I struggled. It had nothing to do with being on my own. I just wasn't in the right frame of mind and my game wasn't in the right place.”

This year, his 71.74 stroke average is second-best in school history. He's rated 89th in the Golfweek collegiate rankings and 13th in the Golfstat Cup standings.

The Gamecocks will need Willett to be sharp if they want to be one of the 10 teams advancing to the championship round, May 30-June 2 at Golden Horseshoe in Williamsburg, Va.

And they'll need contributions from everyone.

Once again, the Gamecocks must survive the toughest field in the regionals, a gauntlet that includes 11 of Golfweek's top 30 and eight of Golfstat's top 25, including consensus No. 1 Georgia. JSU is 93rd in the Golfweek poll.

“It's always going to be a very, very strong region, and it's no different this year,” Gamecocks coach James Hobbs said. “You can always figure going into this region six or seven teams have a lock … but you can't get caught up with who you're playing against (or) you'll lose sight of what you're playing for.”

This will be the Gamecocks' fourth trip to the Division I regionals in six years, but their first since 2004.

They've never made it past this stage, although twice they got to the favorable Saturday morning wave. The closest they came to making the cut was three years ago at Yale when they bounced back from a bad first round to post the best round of the second day and move into the contenders' wave, but couldn't close the deal, missing a playoff by five shots.

“I kind of think when we were there we were little too focused on 10th place,” said senior Bryan Rozier, the last holdover from that team. “We need to go out with the mindset to get in the last group the last day and get in the thick of things and not just be focused on 10th.”

The key to that is getting two good scores from Johann Lee and Marcus Harrell at the 4 and 5 spots, and solid rounds from Willett, Rozier and Julian Colmenares every day.

If the top four Gamecocks play just to their season stroke averages every day, the team shoots 888, which was seven shots off the final qualifying spot in 2006's East Regional.

“We've got five pretty good guys and if they can go out and play well I think we've got a good chance,” Willett said. “We've got five good players. We just need them to step up at different times and post good numbers for three days.”

About Al Muskewitz

Al Muskewitz covers golf and Jacksonville State University sports teams for The Star.

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