As a first-year head coach starting a first-year varsity program, Goucher College men's golf coach Hunter Brown knew he had his work cut out for him, but that didn't deter him from setting lofty goals.
Brown's team of five freshmen, which often competed against established programs fielding rosters with as many as 12 players, accomplished all of its short-terms goals and appears on track to reach the longer-term goals sooner than anticipated.
The Gophers captured the Landmark Conference championship May 6 in Moosic, Pa., to earn a berth in the NCAA Division III Championship May 15-17 in Greensboro, N.C., where they finished 35th out of 42 teams.
With the first-year goals of a conference title and NCAA appearance accomplished, Brown's focus turned to fielding a full roster in 2019 and becoming a top 25 Division III program by 2020. Finishing 35th in the nation in Year 1 seems to have the Gophers well ahead of schedule.
"It's really been amazing," said Brown, who also led the first-year Goucher women's golf program to a third-place conference finish. "We set really big goals, and to be able to accomplish them this year -- and most of all, what five first-year players have done to handle a lot of tough situations and perform very well -- I've really been amazed at what we've been able to accomplish."
Brown says the team's success started with the support he received from retired athletic director Geoff Miller.
"I had a great relationship with him," Brown said. "Geoff helped me in a big way. He hired me as a full-time coach a year in advance, which allowed me to recruit and put all the pieces together. Not a lot of schools at our level would have done that, and that approach and support from him gave us a chance to compete right away."
Brown's initial five-man recruiting class gave him a chance to compete right away, but it wasn't easy to find his players. He scoured all corners of the world to come up with his championship group, which features two players from New Jersey, one from Texas, one from Florida and one from Beijing, China.
"It was a miracle," Brown said of bringing in five strong players right away. "It's exceptionally hard when you're starting a new program to even field a roster, and to field a very good team is even harder. I looked and recruited everywhere. I came into the office every morning and got down on my knees and prayed. I don't think I have to look any farther than that to find the answer as to how we were able to get such a great group in our first year."
Goucher's "Iron Five" was led by a pair of first-team all-conference selections in Steph Lee from New Jersey and Roberto Mikse from Texas. Lee finished third at the Landmark Conference Championship with a two-day score of 160. Mikse placed fifth at 161, and Beijing-native Evan Yue tied for seventh with a 164. Joe Burns and Wade Howard rounded out the lineup, placing ninth and 11th, respectively.
Brown, meantime, was named Landmark Conference Coach of the Year.
A three-time all-conference selection and team captain as a player at Texas-Arlington, Brown's collegiate career ended just five years ago. Brown continues to play competitively, which gives him a feel for what his players are experiencing and allows him to help them navigate the ups and downs that occur both within a single round and throughout a long season that begins in September, takes a break during the cold months and then runs from March until May.
Yue, for example, shot an 84 during his first collegiate round Sept. 11, but concluded his season in a four-way playoff for the right to make the individual cut at the NCAA Championship. He was Goucher's top finisher in Greensboro, carding rounds of 75 and 73 to place 39th in the nation.
"Myself and my assistant [Cam Hollek] are not far removed from college golf," Brown said. "We remember what it's like to play and compete in a tournament setting. It's very fresh in our minds. There are a lot of ups and downs, and you have to persevere a lot. When it's bad, it's hard to believe it will get better, and when it's going good, you feel like it will never be bad again. I think having that experience and still being in competitive golf as coaches helps us in developing our team strategies and helping the players through the season."
Based on the Gophers' success in their first year, it's hard to argue with Brown's reasoning. He said the hardest thing about starting the program was selling players on Goucher when "nothing was reality."
"We had visions and goals for the program and had to recruit based on that," he said. "There were no previous results and no track record for the program or me since it is my first coaching job, so we had to show people our vision and get them excited about what we wanted to do and to believe in it."
Brown only needed five players to believe in it. They did, and the results speak for themselves. Competitively he is proudest of the team's conference championship, pointing to the fact that many college athletes compete for four years and never win a title. He is also excited about the foundation that has been built for the future.
"I'm proud that we were able to develop a culture and environment that players want to be part of," he said. "I see a lot of pieces in place to help players get better. I don't know all the ins and outs of other programs, but I feel like we do as much or more than anyone to help our players get better."
Photo Credit: Keith Lucas/Sideline Media Productions