Members of the Loyola men’s golf team gathered to watch the NCAA selection show, broadcast May 5 live on Golf Channel, knowing they’d have reason to celebrate. The Greyhounds had clinched a regional tournament berth by winning the Patriot League championship the prior weekend. They knew their name would flash on the screen for a couple seconds; the mystery was where they would be going next.
But that name on the screen always means so much more. It was Loyola’s first conference championship and NCAA regional appearance since 2017; no current Greyhounds players had reached this stage. The team gathered for a watch party on the basketball court at Reitz Arena on a Wednesday afternoon because the moment called for celebration.
“It’s fun to know you’re going to get your name called,” head coach Chris Baloga said. “There’s a lot of teams that rely on the at-large part of it, and there’s a few that know they’re on the bubble and some get in and some don’t, so I can’t imagine what that feels like. It’s way more fun to know you’re in than to be second-guessing every regional, wondering if your name is going to be called next.”
The Greyhounds had been building toward this season. They returned 10 of 12 players, including four seniors with extensive experience in competition. After finishing tied for second and solo fifth at the Patriot League championships in 2018 and 2019, respectively, Loyola showed the promise of a conference title contender in 2019-20 before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the season. The Greyhounds also didn’t have a fall 2020 season, so their opening event this spring, which started March 8, was their first in more than a year.
It’s an old Loyola team, with the senior quartet combining to play 63 of the team’s 105 tournament rounds this spring. Evan Brown and Brandon Berry have been consistent stalwarts, posting respective scoring averages of 71.11 and 71.61. While no other Greyhounds have managed an average better than 76 this spring, the promise is there — sophomore Carlo Pizzano averaged 73.32 last season and won three individual events last summer, while senior Brett Inserra still holds the school record for a tournament round, firing a 63 as a freshman.
“Seeing anybody on the team succeed is a great thing, and it pushes you to want to be better,” Brown said. “It’s the nature of golf. … [College golf] is more of a different dynamic in the sense that we have a lot of guys there all wanting the same thing rather than just being there for yourself.”
College golf commands a time commitment unlike any other sport. Rounds are more than four hours long. Practices are often early in the morning. Tournaments frequently take place during the week, forcing players to miss class. The season spans both semesters. For the golfers, time management can present a bigger challenge than the ever-frustrating game itself.
“You get four hours a day as your NCAA maximum [for practice time]. But it takes way more time than four hours to leave your dorm, go to the golf course, warm up a little bit, play 18 — there’s so much time that you’re putting in there,” Baloga said. “And it’s a learning process. You ask these guys, they’re way better at it now than they were three years ago as far as getting the most out of their time. … It’s a full time job for them, there’s no doubt about it.
“It’s hard to do everything in college — you have academics, these guys have athletics, you have social life, [and] you can’t really do all three well. And these guys pretty much give up that social aspect for the most part and they choose to focus on school and golf.”
While the pandemic stopped the 2019-20 college season in its tracks, golfers had much more of an opportunity to continue playing individually than those in other sports. Courses that had closed were opening back up by late spring. Amateur events returned in the summer, and even though Loyola didn’t play as a team in the fall, players were still competing where they could — several Greyhounds, including Brown and Berry, played in multiple Florida tournaments over winter break. As a result, there wasn’t much competitive rust when the season finally began.
“This spring for me, this is the first time I’ve ever come out of the gates firing,” Berry said. “And I think [playing in Florida] was a big reason why. I got to go down there and practice and play for probably almost two or three weeks, just over winter break, which was great.”
Loyola returned to competition in style, winning the Ross Collegiate Classic in Southern Pines, N.C. The Greyhounds shot a sluggish 14-over as a team in the opening round, but raced up the board with a 1-under second round and overtook UNC-Greensboro with a 2-under final round. Brown tied for fourth, junior Matt Malits finished sixth and Berry tied for seventh.
The Greyhounds spent the rest of the spring piling up high finishes — they tied for second once, took third once and finished fourth once. Loyola’s only lackluster showing was an 11th-place finish at the 14-team Tar Heel Intercollegiate, which featured the most challenging field on the Greyhounds’ schedule (including four power-conference teams and three mid-major league champions).
Brown finished the regular season with an individual victory at the Rutherford Intercollegiate, hosted by Penn State. The senior blitzed the field with a 71-65-66 to win by six strokes at a course he grew familiar with as a junior golfer in Kennett Square, Pa. Brown’s second college win — he captured the Loyola Intercollegiate in Goodyear, Ariz., in 2019 — made him the eighth multiple winner in program history. While the Greyhounds finished seven back of Penn State, having the team in contention added to the winning experience.
“I think that at this event it felt a little different from when I won in Arizona, only because we were in contention coming down the stretch, and so every shot mattered maybe a little bit more so than in Arizona,” Brown said. “…. I wanted to go out and win that final round by 10 shots if I could have, just because I knew that that was going to matter to how the team was going to finish up.”
Even with those strong finishes, though, Loyola knew it wasn’t an at-large contender and needed to win the Patriot League tournament to reach NCAAs. The Greyhounds did just that May 1-2, lapping the field by 18 shots as a team at the challenging U.S. Naval Academy Golf Club. Berry captured the individual championship, finishing 1-over with rounds of 69-70-72. Brown cruised to second at 4-over, three behind Berry but a whopping seven clear of third place. As a team, Loyola led by four after the first round and nine after a 36-hole Saturday before pulling away on the final day.
Not only was it the first team conference title for everyone on the roster, but it was a coronation for Berry as an individual. The McLean, Va., native had been a consistent force all season, tallying four top-seven finishes in five regular-season events. But he had still never finished better than a tie for third in his collegiate debut as a freshman in 2017-18. Now he has a win to his name. Even a broken driver couldn’t stop him.
“I really feel like I’ve just been trending in the right direction the entire spring,” Berry said. “I haven’t really peaked yet, but I feel like everything is getting to a point where it’s still getting better and better. So hopefully I can kind of just keep doing the same stuff I’ve been doing because it’s clearly working and continue it.”
Aside from the selection show watch party, there wasn’t much time for the team to celebrate — final exams started the week after the conference tournament, and most players also had U.S. Open local qualifiers to play in (Brown and Berry both advanced to sectional qualifying with strong performances on Thursday, May 6). The Greyhounds will practice at a variety of courses in the coming days, then drive down to Kingston Springs, Tenn., for the regional tournament May 17-19.
The NCAA Tournament consists of six 54-hole regionals and a total of 80 teams. Four regions, including Loyola’s, have 13 teams fighting for five spots, while two have 14 teams vying for six spots at nationals. That means a total of 32 teams, plus each regional’s low individual not on a qualifying team, will advance to the national finals, which start May 28 in Scottsdale, Ariz.
While Loyola’s No. 11 seed suggests it’s unlikely the Greyhounds make the cut, Baloga believes there’s a path. The team most likely needs both Brown and Berry to finish toward the top of the individual leaderboard and the other three members of the lineup to post two competitive scores in each round.
It’s unclear what happens from here. The seniors have the option to return for an extra year, but the Greyhounds will most likely be a younger team in 2021-22. Brown and Berry, both long hitters and solid ball-strikers, have professional aspirations. After four years of buildup, though, they’ve given themselves and their Loyola teammates a chance on the regional stage.
“If we can get to Wednesday and wake up Wednesday and feel like we’re one good round away from being [in the top five], that’s all I can really ask for,” Baloga said. “And I do think we’re really capable of doing that.”
Photo Credits: Andy Mead