If you need a case study on how to develop a sport from an overall Atlantic Sun Conference perspective, you could look at baseball or the resurgent group of softball teams. However, the most telling may be one of the least recognized intercollegiate sports out there: Golf.
This week, three A-Sun women’s golf teams earned berths into the NCAA Championship for the first time in conference history. Next week, the league expects to have at least two men’s golf teams receive bids into the postseason field. While the men’s side has had multiple teams in regional play often over the last decade, rarely have two teams had as high expectations at UNF and ETSU will this year. The women break a string of four straight seasons of one-bid status.
How did A-Sun golf grow its prestige and vault onto the regional stage?
1. Competition from within.
Campbell University set the standard for women’s golf in the A-Sun. The Lady Camels own eight of the last 15 A-Sun titles. Stetson head coach Floyd Kerr thinks this forced other programs to improve.
“John Crooks at Campbell has set high standards for his teams while setting the standards that other teams in our conference should seek,” commented Kerr.
On the men’s side, we don’t see a dominant program, but the strength ranges from top-30 programs like UNF and ETSU to fast risers Kennesaw State, FGCU and Mercer. However, the pressure is still on for the men’s teams to improve as the Ospreys and Bucs are clearly aiming to advance out of regional play and be alive for the eight-team match play closing round at the NCAA Finals.
2. Strategic expansion
The addition of ETSU impacted the golf landscape in the A-Sun. The Bucs came in at the perfect time, filling the void left by long-time power Georgia State’s departure for the Colonial Athletic Association. Both the men’s and women’s teams have claimed conference titles and will each be in the regional field this season. With these two powerhouses at the top of the conference others had to improve to compete.
The conference’s reclassifying institutions are making a quick impact. UNF men’s team stands 21st currently in both the Golfstat and GolfWeek/Sagarin rankings. FGCU saw its women’s team lead the championship after day one and the men’s team use a furious rally to nearly grab the title at the men’s event. Kennesaw State women’s program finished second overall and the men’s team is one of five A-Sun teams in the top 100 of the Golfstat rankings. USC Upstate’s Josh Gallman moved into the top 100 nationally after a third-place finish at the championship.
All these programs are impacting the sport of golf in significant ways, a trend that most expect to continue in the league’s other 15 sports.
3. Geographic location
The A-Sun consistently takes advantage of its geographic location in recruiting, particularly in the spring sports. A-Sun Coach of the Year candidate Scott Schroeder of UNF believes this factor plays a big role.
“I think the conference is only going to continue to improve,” reflected Schroeder. “We are located in the south and have coaches that work hard at what they do. You combine our geography with the fact that there are so many more good players now in Junior golf that it allows us to get better recruits.”
The conference footprint incorporates temperate climates and large media markets.
4. Institutional commitment
This factor could be the most important of them all. A-Sun institutions are supporting golf at a level that helps make it a player regionally. The Stetson women’s program is a perfect example.
“When I took the job at Stetson five years ago, I knew I would have to raise our standards to be competitive,” Kerr said. “Other [teams] in our league seem to have also made commitments to improve their programs. This is the key to our conference. Every year I see more teams getting competitive and I think this is a great thing.”
With improving programs, favorable weather for the sport and a broader institutional commitment, A-Sun golf is in the midst of a strong upswing.
“I believe that over time our conference is only going to continue to improve,” closed Schroeder. “You could see us getting six bids a year in the future.”
Heading into NCAA Regional play, which of the A-Sun five teams has the best chance at advancing to the nationals?