In sports at the collegiate level, teams poised to make playoff runs usually have the right mixture of talent, depth and experience. Penn State’s men’s golf team could very well be one of those teams ready to contend for the postseason this year.
Just ask Anthony DeGol, one of four seniors on the team this year. He pointed to the amount of talent the Nittany Lions have up and down their roster, not just the veteran talent on board this year.
"I think we have at least eight or nine guys, if not the whole team, that can be starting in every match," he said.
This type of overall ability is due in large part to younger players stepping up and getting match experience early on. This was especially the case for sophomores Xander McDonald-Smith and Jens Talbert, two golfers who made an impact as soon as they started during their first year with the Lions in 2011-12.
McDonald-Smith began playing in the second tournament of the season. From there, he finished third or fourth on the team in most tournaments, shooting a personal-low 73 four times during his first 10 rounds.
"When you shoot that type of number, on most courses, that’s going to help you move forward in the competition," head coach Greg Nye said.
While he definitely helped bolster the Lions’ starting lineup, McDonald-Smith also admits he wishes he had played better.
"I played alright, but I had a lot of bad tournaments, too. I was happy that I started, but I wasn’t really happy with the way I played," McDonald-Smith said, adding that he had practiced a lot over the summer to try to improve his game.
Unlike McDonald-Smith, Talbert took a different road toward the starting lineup. In fact, a separated shoulder that prevented him from playing during the summer was supposed to keep him on the shelf for the entire season.
"I was supposed to redshirt," Talbert said. "I had the opportunity to play and I took advantage of it."
After beginning play as an individual, which means he played in tournaments but didn’t count toward the team score, Talbert broke into the starting lineup during the spring. He wasted no time making an impact on the course, notching a top-10 finish in the Rutherford Intercollegiate and shooting a personal-low of 71 at the Hawkeye-Great River Entertainment Invite.
According to Nye, both performances from the two freshmen were much needed.
"We really needed it later in the year. We needed some help and they were able to provide it," Nye said. "Their timing was impeccable."
The experience McDonald-Smith and Talbert received right away demonstrates the amount of depth that DeGol stressed the team has.
"You can’t just rely on one or two people; you need to have five good scorers, and [younger players starting] possibly gives you competition to strive to be better," DeGol said.
After the last two seasons ended with bottom-half finishes at the Big Ten Championships, the Lions are itching to get back to the postseason. With the mix of old and young talent, that idea is far from unrealistic.
"I’m looking for everyone to step up, including myself. These last few years we went through a few things that kind of held us back from being really competitive," DeGol said. "This year we have a lot of depth on our team, and we can do some really good things."
Talbert said that the team’s goal is to win the Big Ten, a mission that begins this weekend with the Gopher Invitational in Wayzata, Minn. — a 15-team tournament hosted by Minnesota.
DeGol took an extra step and said he thinks the Lions could make it back to the NCAA Nationals for the second time in the last four seasons.
"I absolutely, whole-heartedly believe that," DeGol said.
If it does not make it that far, though, Nye said that the team is on its way.
"I think that it’s reasonable to think that we can be in that contention bracket, and if we don’t achieve it this year, we know these young guys are going to develop a bit more," Nye said. "If it’s not this year, then certainly the following year we should really be moving forward towards that goal."