Last year men's golf coach John Means said the 2014-15 Vandals had a chance to be the best team he had coached in his five-year career at The University of Idaho.
He was right.
Starting in September, the Vandals grew and matured as individuals and a team until nine months later in their return to the Big Sky Conference Tournament the Idaho blew away the rest of the conference by an astounding 21 strokes and wound up the season finishing tenth in the NCAA regionals. It was a nice finish to a good year, but those who followed them got the feeling the Vandals were disappointed with the way the season ended without gaining a berth in the NCAA Championships.
Means as well knew the Vandals could do better. The players shared his feelings. Despite their solid season, in a way almost felt overlooked by the rest of the country. Maybe it was because they came from university in a state a lot of people couldn't point to on a map and they played in a conference most people outside the Western US never knew existed.
As a result, the Vandal men set a goal to play so well in 2015-16 the rest of the country would know who they were, where they were from and how well they could play the game. That quest started with the first days of practice in the heat of August on The Palouse.
"Last year saw unequaled success, with new scoring records being broken all spring by this team, culminating with a 21 stroke win at the Big Sky Championships, and our first NCAA appearance since the early 90s," Means recalled yesterday. "The team finally realized how good they were, and they took that with them over the summer.
"When they showed up this fall, they had a chip on their shoulder, feeling that they hadn't been recognized nationally for their accomplishments and vowed to make up for that this fall. With the new incoming freshmen, (the returning players) made them understand how important each and every day of practice was, and how to get the most out of each day.
"They have incorporated that message and taken it to heart," the coach continued. "Practices this fall have been unbelievably focused -- no horseplay, just work. They are proud of what they have accomplished each and every day in practice and can see the fruits of their labors."
The Vandals opened their fall season at the Husky Invitational in wind-swept Cle Elum, Washington Sept, 22-23 and finished fifth; they were the top finisher that was not a member of the Pac-12 Conference.
HUSKY INVITE FINAL STANDINGS
1. Washington (+13)
3. Oregon State (+17)
4. USC (+18)
5. Idaho (+26)
6. Gonzaga (+39)
7. Washington State (+41)
UC Davis (+41)
9. Minnesota (+43)
10. Utah (+46)
11. BYU (+47)
12. Boise State (+48)
13. Sacramento State (+51)
14. Seattle University (+89)
Instead of taking the usual week or two off between tournaments, however, Means and his players then flew and bussed east to Burlington, Iowa (where they grow corn).
After adjusting to the nonstop winds of Washington, the Vandals suddenly faced dead calm playing conditions against some of the best teams in the country. The Silver and Gold finished the first round at five over par as a team.
"When we were invited to the Golf Week Challenge last spring," Means said, "we knew that the field there was going to be strong, and many of the top teams in the country would be there. This would be the time to showcase the talent we have."
Despite the rocky first round, Means said his Vandals "...came back with a flurry" shooting 23 under par for the final two rounds, including the low round of the day in the final round to come from 22 shots off the lead to finish just 4 strokes out of first.
GOLFWEEK COLLEGE CHALLENGE
1. Iowa (-22)
2. North Carolina State (-19)
3. Idaho (-18)
4. Kansas State (-12)
5. Charleston Southern (-9)
6. SMU (-7)
7. Long Beach State (-3)
8. VCU (-1)
9. LSU (+5)
10. San Jose State (+12)
GOLFWEEK ARTICLE: Idaho's Rylee Iacolucci plays big despite small stature
"The golf world took notice," Means commented. "Several articles appeared in GolfWeek, and the phone has been ringing off the hook with recruits and their parents. The Vandal golf team is being noticed."
The season-long quest continues this weekend at the Southern Dunes Collegiate in Maricopa, Arizona.
Means says his Vandals are anxious to get back onto the course this weekend. "We all believe that the best is yet to come. They are not ready to stop here!"