When Chris Baloga took over the Loyola University men's golf team, the expectation was to continue building off the solid foundation that was already in place.
Prior to Baloga's arrival for the 2010-11 season, the Greyhounds won three straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference titles, establishing themselves as one of the nation's up-and-coming teams. That would have been a lot for anyone to follow, let alone a first-time Division I head coach like Baloga.
"I definitely had my work cut out for me coming to Loyola with all the success they had before I got here," Baloga said. "But I knew if we got the right guys and they bought in, we could make this program even more special."
During his tenure, the 33-year-old Baloga has done just that with one of the best stretches in the program's four-plus decade history. He led the Greyhounds to three more consecutive MAAC championships before moving to the Patriot League in 2014 and earning back-to-back league crowns.
So what's the next step Loyola needs to take in order to continue its ascension as one of the nation's top golf schools?
"Our broader goal, our bigger goal is to make it to the NCAA finals and make it out of regionals," Baloga said. "It's great to get to regionals, but we are now looking at how we can take that next step. I think we have a really good chance to do that this year as long as we come into our own down the home stretch."
First, the Greyhounds must take care of business during the Patriot League championship at the Naval Academy Golf Course in Annapolis, Md., April 30-May 1. Loyola will surely have a target on its back after the conference's coaches and sports information directors recently picked the team to repeat as league champions for the third time in as many seasons.
But if the Greyhounds can maintain the status quo, then there's no telling how far they could advance in the NCAA tournament with another opportunity.
"Every year, we have gotten a bit closer as far as the number of strokes goes," Baloga said. "We should have been a lot closer than we were last year -- I just felt like we didn't play very well -- and we are gaining on it. I tell our guys that it is great to get to regionals, but it is time to start looking a little bit deeper and how we get to the finals."
Last year, Loyola came as close as it ever has to reaching the NCAA finals under Baloga, finishing 12th out of 13 teams at the Chapel Hill, N.C., regionals.
"I think our program is getting to the point where we can kind of set goals beyond winning the Patriot League and just getting to the NCAA tournament," senior Jimmy Dengler said. "I think if we continue playing well this year, especially against the tough competition we face, we have the talent throughout the lineup to make it out of our regional."
Dengler, a former All-Patriot League first-team selection, has captained Loyola's seven-man squad through one of the nation's toughest schedules. This season alone, the Greyhounds have competed against three Golf Coaches Association of America top 25 teams -- No. 13 Wake Forest, No. 20 Duke and No. 23 Virginia -- in various tournaments.
For his part, Dengler has embraced the increased leadership role he's had to take on as the team's lone senior. With Dengler and juniors Connor Flach, Ethan Wall and Will Wears in charge, that has allowed freshman Morgan Egloff, and sophomores Brendan Peel, Jeremy Wall and Bennett Wisner to gain valuable experience on the fly.
Baloga, meanwhile, said he specifically challenged his youthful bunch with tougher matches this season to prepare for the rigors of both the conference and NCAA tournaments. The Greyhounds have embraced the test their coach put before them, finishing in the top half of all but two of their first eight tournaments this season.
"This year, we have a great group of guys who just want to be successful," said Flach, one of three Greyhounds to take part in last year's NCAA tournament. "I think we can start thinking about making a run and getting out of our regional in the NCAA tournament because of how Coach Chris has pushed us during the regular season."
It's all part of a process Baloga hopes ends with continued growth.
"We have been working to set our program up to make a run like this for quite a while with everything we have done," Baloga said. "We aren't getting ahead of ourselves, but I think the potential is there for this group."
Issue 220: April 2016