To prepare for the Loyola Maryland men’s golf program’s 2021 season, Brandon Berry, Evan Brown, Turner Foster and Carlo Pizzano played seven courses in 10 days in January in … Jupiter, Florida.
“We typically aren’t able to play golf in January up in Baltimore because it’s freezing or there’s snow on the ground,” Brown explained, adding that he and Berry — both seniors — met Foster and Pizzano —both sophomores — who had finished an event in nearby Orlando.
“But we had some opportunities through connections and that type of thing, and we took advantage of them to get off on a better foot than we typically would have been able to coming off winter season. Not many people would think to do that, but I think we all felt that we had a really special opportunity this semester and that there was a lot of potential there. So we wanted to achieve that potential and do everything in our power to go out and play well and do our best every week. So we saw that trip as being very important in terms of getting our golf games in the right mode before our events started.”
That decision proved fateful as the Greyhounds opened the spring with their first victory at a tournament in almost two years. They then capped the season on May 2 by capturing the Patriot League tournament for the first time since 2017 and fourth overall since 2014.
They qualified for the NCAA Regional where they will be the No. 11 seed – their highest in program history. The three-day, three-round event at The Golf Club of Tennessee in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, begins Monday, and coach Chris Baloga is understandably enthusiastic about his team’s odds.
“I think it’s a credit to what we’ve done,” he said. “Our team scoring average isn’t the best we’ve had, but we’ve also played a way more difficult course schedule than we usually do. … I think we’re definitely better than our scoring average, but playing in a regional like this where the course is going to be more challenging, I think we’re potentially ready for it because this is the type of course we’ve played on during the season.”
Baloga said the seeds for the program’s success were beginning to germinate last year before the coronavirus pandemic prematurely ended all college athletics in March 2020. His optimism was confirmed when Loyola outpaced 12 other teams to win the Ross Collegiate Classic in Southern Pines, North Carolina, at Mid Pines Inn and Golf Club on March 8-9.
“Coming through and having a chance to win and then doing it, I thought that was a huge moment for us because it was something these guys hadn’t done,” Baloga said. “It was definitely a different mindset. You always believed you were capable, but now you knew you were capable. Winning that first event was huge for morale, and to get that success right away was awesome.”
Berry pointed out that the Greyhounds finished runner-up in the fall of 2019 at the nine-team Hamptons Intercollegiate on Oct. 7-8, the 12-team Georgetown Intercollegiate on Oct. 14-15, and the 16-team Metropolitan Intercollegiate Championship on Oct. 27-28 and then third at the 19-team Loyola Intercollegiate on March 22-24.
“We had a lot of close calls,” he said. “We knew we could get it done, but it was kind of weighing on us. So to get it done in the first event was definitely a huge confidence booster for everyone. Winning is a skill. You don’t win very often in golf. So when you do get into contention, you’ve got to have that experience. We’ve had the experience of being in contention, but not winning.”
Loyola did not win another event, but entered the Patriot League tournament as one of the favorites due to the presence of Berry and Brown. Berry won the individual title with a one-over-par 211 over three rounds at the U.S. Naval Academy Golf Club in Annapolis. Brown was three strokes behind for a second-place finish, and the next closest competitor was seven shots behind Brown.
Berry credited his victory to a renewed emphasis on concentrating on his game.
“If I made a mistake, I just kept bouncing back on the next hole,” he said. “On the last day, I think I entered with a four-shot lead. I kind of just kept my head down and played my game. I wasn’t really looking at the leaderboard. I kind of just asked for updates from the coaches, and they were telling me that I was three or four ahead. I did not know I was 10 ahead of everybody else.”
Baloga said the team’s ability to start nine of its 11 golfers this spring is a testament to its depth, and he noted that senior Brett Inserra has played every event. But he said Berry and Brown have been critical to their success.
“Their consistency off the tee is much better than when they came in their freshman years,” Baloga said. “They both drive it really far, and they hit it much straighter than they did three years ago. And around the green is where they’ve really improved the most. They get a lot of things up-and-down where they didn’t really get them up-and-down before. Their up-and-down percentage is significantly higher than it was three years ago.”
Both Berry and Brown said adjustments in their putting games have helped. Berry said he switched from an arm lock to a wrist lock to anchor his putter and provide a more stable stroke. Brown has moved closer to the ball, raised his hands higher on the club, and added an arcing motion — advice he received from his caddy when he qualified for and played in the 120th U.S. Amateur Championship in Bandon, Oregon, in August.
“I think I’ve always been a good ball striker, but it’s always kind of hung on whether I was going to have a good putting day or a bad putting day,” he said. “That is what has propelled me in the last year to getting better.”
To prepare for the course at The Golf Club of Tennessee, Baloga had the team practice Sunday – Mother’s Day, no less – at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, which, like the site of the regional, is a Tom Fazio-designed course that features rolling hills and bunkers that place a premium on accuracy.
“It’s kind of similar,” Berry said of the courses. “It’s tight, but there are some open holes, too, that you can take advantage of.”
To advance to what would be the first NCAA championship in school history, the Greyhounds must finish in the Top 5 of their regional, which includes Atlantic Coast Conference champion Clemson, the No. 1 seed and No. 4 team in Division I according to the most recent Golfweek Coaches Poll, and four other teams ranked in the poll’s Top 25 in North Carolina State (No. 10), Vanderbilt (No. 13), Arkansas (No. 23), and San Diego State (No. 25).
Still, Brown said neither he nor his teammates will have any trepidation about competing.
“None of our guys have had the opportunity to play in the regionals before, but I think we know what an NCAA regional is expected to be,” he said. “It’s probably going to be the strongest event most of us have played because we’re playing against the best college golfers in the country. So it’s going to be a good test of golf, but all of our games are trending in the right direction. We’ve had some good finishes. Coming off a win in our last event, I think we’re all excited to see how our games stack up against the best in the country, and I think we’re confident we have a good chance to get into the Top 5 and move onto the nationals hopefully.”
NCAA MEN’S GOLF REGIONALS
The Golf Club of Tennessee, Kingston Springs, Tenn.