So 2017 wasn't the year for Illinois golf, but it certainly wasn't the rebuilding year most expected either. Many thought the Illini would take a step back after losing All-Americans Charlie Danielson and Thomas Detry, who led the Illini to NCAA match-play four straight years including three semifinal appearances. But an Illinois team with no seniors plus two freshmen in its rotation didn't miss a beat. This crew may have made the journey a bit more dramatic -- needing a late surge to survive the NCAA Regional and advance past NCAA Championship stroke play -- but this team's accomplishments matched almost every other great Illini team (besides the 2013 national runner-up): a dominant Big Ten championship performance, a sweep of the Big Ten awards, a 10th straight NCAA Championship appearance, a fifth-straight NCAA match play performance and a third straight Final Four. Many will say this team exceeded expectations. Nah, it just didn't lower its expectations while so many others did.
So why can't this team get over the semifinal hump the last three years? First of all, there isn't a chorus decrying Illinois' shortcomings. This program has been a source of pride for a department that has had too few winners in its prime programs. Following and watching a winning culture has been a nice respite each May. But golf is a hard game. And match play makes it a different game with even more wild swings. The NCAA Championships also is a grind. Stroke play is four rounds in four days. Match play starts with an early morning quarterfinal followed by an afternoon semifinal. Six rounds in five days. Players wake up at 4 a.m., and if they play in a semifinal, they may have walked 16 miles by the end of the day under intense pressure. This isn't an excuse for Illinois because every other team deals with it. But two of the last three years they've lost in match play, they've had two freshmen who had never played in the event. The one year they had just one freshman (2016), they lost to a team on its home course: Oregon, the eventual national champion. Mike Small's approach is great. Illinois enjoyed fantastic support from orange-and-blue faithful this week in their home state, which may have lifted them as far as they went. But golf happens, and there are other talented teams. Illinois continues to prove it belongs with the best.
To win a national championship, you have to qualify for the NCAA Championships -- and Illinois has done that for a decade straight. Their match-play streak (five straight) is the longest in the country. Don't expect that to change soon -- because 2018 will provide the Illini with another great opportunity.
Dylan Meyer and Nick Hardy may form the country's best duo next season. Both rank in the top-16 of the Golfweek individual rankings. No duo can top their NCAA Championship experience (three Final Fours). The bespectacled Meyer brings the swag. The slender, visor-wearing Indiana native may look like a future accountant, but he's the fiery personality that Small places at the back end of match play because Meyer loves the high-pressure moments and the spotlight. Hardy is like a Small clone: more reserved but oozing poise, consistency and understated leadership. Illinois returns two likely top-10 golfers and two experienced closers. Advantage Illinois every time they step on the course.
The talented freshmen just learned a lot this week. They will be even more dangerous as sophomores. Arizonan Michael Feagles and Belgian Giovanni Tadiotto had some great moments during the NCAA Championships and some low moments too. They felt a pressure they've never experienced before. That will strengthen them for the next time they face that adversity. Small may be the best coach in the country, but nothing teaches like experience. And the talent certainly is there. Feagles, a top-20 recruit in the Class of 2016, earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year after averaging 72.9 strokes per tournament during the spring. He has the talent to be the best golfer on an Illini team when he's an upperclassman. But Feagles really struggled during the postseason. The pressure seemed to get the best of him. He'll have to find a way to handle it better as he takes on a bigger role. Tadiotto came on strong this spring, displacing top-20 recruit Bryan Baumgarten from the rotation. He finished top-20 in the three tournaments leading up to the NCAA Championships and came up with a big win in the NCAA quarterfinal match. With a year in the states and a year of NCAA competition under his belt, his comfort and confidence should only grow. And Baumgarten, a top-20 recruit who had a strong fall, now has an offseason to push himself to improve after a rough spring. But he'll have more competition for that fifth spot with Small signing top-35 recruit Brendan O'Reilly, the Class 3A state champion out of Hinsdale Central.
Losing Edoardo Lipparelli hurts though. The redshirt sophomore came on strong last year during the postseason and played his best golf during the last few weeks. He would've given the Illini another top-50 talent and another with a wealth of NCAA Championship experience. If Lipparelli returned, Illinois might enter next year as the favorite to win the national title. But Lipparelli is going back to his native Italy to turn pro. I rarely will fault a talented student-athlete for turning pro. One, he can make money doing something he is really good at and loves. Maximize those money-making years. He can always come back to finish school. But Lipparelli also is making the move now so he can play for his national team and best line himself up for an opportunity at competing for a spot on the Ryder Cup. Another recent Illini foreigner did well with that plan (Thomas Pieters). Good luck, Edo.
But the biggest returner for Illinois? Mike Small. This guy doesn't rebuild. He retools. He faces new challenges each year but always finds a way to conquer them and put his golfers in a position to succeed. Small wasn't the greatest Illini player. That goes to Steve Stricker -- for now, because Pieters may eventually have a chance to take the title -- but the greatest players rarely become the greatest coaches. Small's struggles as a pro player taught him more about adversity and how to overcome his limitations. He has the ability to teach others those lessons -- and teach it well. There might be a coach as good as him, but there are none better. He's lifted a northern school into a Big Ten dynasty and national power with phenomenal facilities. He's what Josh Whitman wants every other program to aspire and become -- a team that consistently competes for national championships. Winning one still feels inevitable -- and maybe even imminent?