Sept. 14, 2010
For only the fifth time in program history, the Baylor men's golf team concluded its season on the NCAA's biggest stage - a trip to the 2010 NCAA Championship. For eighth-year head coach Greg Priest, it was his third trip to the NCAA finals, but his first as Baylor head coach. Priest considers the Bears' trip to the 2010 NCAA Championship as a `program-changer'. All five Baylor golfers from that program-changing lineup return to Bear Country for the 2010-11 season.
"Making the NCAA Championship is always one of our big goals at the beginning of the season," Priest said. "In years past, we've been able to make NCAA Regionals and we were excited about getting there, but now it's a matter of sustaining last year's success and making multiple trips to the NCAA Championship.
"I told our team that we don't want to be `one-hit wonders'," Priest said. "We don't want to get the NCAA Championship just once. We want go back year after year."
Seniors Payne Gniewek and Cody Paladino, juniors Lorenzo Scotto and Joakim Mikkelsen and sophomore Ryan O'Rear account for five of Baylor's eight returning letterwinners. The quintet appeared in 184 of Baylor's 239 individual rounds in 2009-10 - nearly 77 percent of the team's round total. If Baylor is to return to the NCAA Championship for the second consecutive season, it will have to rely on its four upperclassmen.
"Everyone is back from last year's team, so I like our chances (of making it back to the NCAA Championship)," Priest said. "Of course, it's not going to be easy; it'll be tough. No one is going to give it to us. We have to use the experience we have and earn it."
Gniewek, Mikkelsen and Scotto played in all 43 rounds (14 tournaments) for the Bears last season. Mikkelsen, a junior from Dramman, Norway, posted team-bests in rounds counted (90.7 percent), scoring average (73.13), score vs. par (1.40), rounds of par or better (20), top-10 (five), top-15 (seven) and top-25 (nine) finishes during his stellar sophomore season. Mikkelsen finished a tournament under-par six times last season, including an individual-medalist performance at the 2010 Border Olympics (3-under 213).
"I've watched Joakim grow up on the course," Priest said. "He stepped in as a rookie and had a very solid freshman season. Last year, he started really strong, but didn't play his best golf towards the end of the season.
"When he wasn't playing his best, we had other guys that took the pressure off Joakim," Priest said. "He doesn't need to shoulder the entire load anymore. All we need is one complete, full season from him."
Mikkelsen didn't have to shoulder the load on his own; he had help.
Fellow European Lorenzo Scotto (Pordenone, Italy) enjoyed a solid sophomore campaign, finishing second behind Mikkelsen in rounds counted (86.0 percent), scoring average (73.40), score vs. par (1.67), rounds of par or better (13) and top-25 (eight) finishes.
"Lorenzo's track record is amazing," Priest said. "When he came here as a freshman, he struggled to make adjustments, which was expected. His play was pretty limited as a redshirt freshman in 2009."
Priest believes the turning point for Scotto came at the 2009 NCAA South Central Regional, when the Italian was thrust into the lineup at the last second in place of injured senior Bill Allcorn.
"I think Lorenzo playing in the 2009 NCAA South Central Regional when he wasn't expecting to play was huge for him," Priest said. "He didn't know what to expect and he got much-needed postseason experience which he parlayed into a great year in 2010. When we needed him the most, he stepped up big time. He's come back in great shape and I want to him to make it to the next level. He has the talent and the ability to be one of our top guys, if not our No. 1 golfer."
Rounding out the trio is Gniewek, who transferred from Michigan State just before the start of Baylor's fall 2009 season. Gniewek made an immediate impact, finishing third in all four major categories - rounds counted (84.9 percent), stroke average (73.67), score vs. par (1.95) and rounds of par or better (11). The Trenton, Mich., native also posted two top-10, five top-15 and seven top-25 finishes.
"(Adding Payne) was a great pick-up for us at the start of last season," Priest said. "I didn't know much about him besides the scores I'd seen. He stepped into the lineup immediately and played really well. Having someone like Payne in the lineup is very important - he's a rock for us.
"We have some potential All-Americans on this team, but the only thing keeping them from that is cleaning up some events," Priest said.
Baylor's arguably most experienced golfer is its second senior, Cody Paladino. In his career, Paladino owns a 74.85 scoring average in 106 rounds and has finished in the top-10 eight teams. In 2009, the Kensington, Conn., native became the first golfer in men's program history to qualify for the NCAA Championship as an individual. Paladino appeared in 10 tournaments as a junior, registering a 75.83 scoring average through 30 rounds and finished the season in the lineup at the NCAA South Central Regional and NCAA Championship.
"Cody went through huge swing changes, which were needed, but he struggled in the beginning," Priest said. "Once he finally got comfortable, you were able to see just how good those changes were. He's super talented and has done a lot for our program in three years. We expect the same great things from him this year. After playing the postseason in 2010 and playing during the summer, he's very confident with what he's able to do."
Baylor's biggest contributors in 2010 weren't limited to its experienced golfers. A pair of freshmen entered the lineup and played well for Priest when they needed to step up. Sophomore Ryan O'Rear was Baylor's No. 5 golfer in its lineup for the 2010 NCAA Championship.
In July 2010, O'Rear qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship for the second time in his career before finishing 12th at the Texas Amateur Open.
"Ryan's list of high school accomplishments speaks for itself," Priest said. "In the beginning, he really struggled to get into the lineup, but we told him to stay patient, continue to work hard and it will pay off. He stayed with it and it paid major dividends for him as a freshman.
"We wanted him to be our fifth man and he did a lot more than that, throwing up some good numbers," Priest said. "He enjoyed a really good showing at the Big 12 Championship and a solid NCAA Regional. You have to take advantage of getting into the lineup and not letting that spot go and Ryan did that."
Prior to the start of the 2010 spring season, Baylor was dealt the departure of Morten Bergan. Priest inserted walk-on Jerry Ruiz into the lineup, which helped the Bears fill a hole immediately. Ruiz, a native of Puebla, Mexico, carded a 75.84 scoring average in 19 rounds. Now a veteran sophomore, Ruiz gives Baylor yet another proven option in the lineup.
"Jerry came on in the spring and we had originally thought about redshirting him," Priest said. "Losing Morten Bergan presented an opportunity for someone to step up. At first, he and Ryan (O'Rear) split time in the bottom of the lineup at the beginning of the spring. Jerry's a solid player; he was able to play right away on such short notice. He's only going to get better and better with experience. I expect good things to come for him."
Rounding out Priest's veteran-heavy roster are senior Michael McKinley, junior Drew McGee and sophomore Matthew Seligmann. McKinley competed in two tournaments as an individual in 2009-10, including a career-best 10th-place finish at the 2009 Baylor Intercollegiate. McGee competed individually at the 2010 UTSA Oak Hills Invitational, while both he and Seligmann have played individually in several junior varsity events in Texas.
Freshman Niclas Mansson is Baylor's lone new addition to the roster for the 2010-11, giving the Bears a third accomplished European golfer. Mansson comes to Baylor after participating for four years at the highly-selective Swedish Golf Federations High School in Klippan-Ljungbyhed, Sweden. In 2009, he was listed as Sweden's best amateur on both the Swedish SAS-Masters Tour and Nordic League.
Priest believes Mansson can make an immediate impact for the Bears in 2010.
"With a veteran team, there's no pressure on Niclas to come in and make the lineup right away," Priest said. "He definitely has a chance to make the lineup and I wouldn't be surprised if he makes the lineup sometime soon. So far, he's adjusted well since coming over from Sweden and I've been impressed by him with what I've seen during practice rounds."