Come Sunday afternoon, the Nevada men’s golf team hopes to blast some Queen.
“‘We Are the Champions’ has been a fun song to play this year,” junior Sam Harned said.
The Wolf Pack has been able to crank up that song three times over the last few months, winning a program-best three tournaments during the 2018-19 season. And as it begins the Mountain West Championship on Friday at Tucson National, it will do so with a legitimate shot at claiming the conference title.
“We’re going there to win,” coach Jacob Wilner said.
UNLV, the three-time defending champs, enter the tournament as the favorite. The Rebels are ranked a MW-best 34th in the GolfStat rankings. But the conference boasts seven of the top-75 teams in the nation, so the competition will be fierce. At No. 50 nationally, Nevada ranks fourth in the conference, but has shown it can beat UNLV if it plays its best.
“There are seven teams in the top 75 out of 11,” Wilner said. “There are several Power 5 conferences that don’t have that. Men’s golf in the Mountain West is probably the toughest sport, the most competitive sport. We send the most teams to NCAAs, so it’s definitely going to be a challenge. We’re going there to try to win and we have a chance, but there are a lot of good teams in this league.”
Nevada is coming off its best regular season ever. In addition to titles at the Nick Watney Invitational, Visit Stockton Pacific Invitational and Olympic Club Intercollegiate, the Wolf Pack was runner-up at the Husky Invitational and third at the Badger Invite. In all, Nevada finished in the top five in seven of its nine tournaments, with Joey Vrizch and Sam Meek both winning events as individuals while Harned leads the team with five top-10 finishes this season.
“We’re deeper than normal, which has been the key,” Wilner said. “To have two different guys win, our one, two and three have been really solid. In the past, we’ve never really had more than one or two solid players. Now we’re three deep and getting a lot of help from our four and five guy.”
The Wolf Pack has never won a MW Championship, its program best being a third-place finish. That’s where the team finished last season, a result that was good enough to send the Wolf Pack to its first NCAA Regional since 2007. With a Regional spot all but locked up this season, Nevada is aiming high at the MW event.
“Last year, I would have said we’re going there – obviously we wanted to win last year – but we wanted to make Regionals,” Harned said. “That was the big goal. This year, we have a great team, we’ve won three times, we know we can do it. Obviously it will be a challenge, but we all believe we can do it.”
The tournament is being held at its former home. Last year’s MW Championship was played at Gold Mountain Golf Club in Bremerton, Wash., but the previous 11 events were held in Tucson, which offers a more friendly course. Nevada played at Tucson National last year at the NIT where it shot 15-under par.
“This is a birdie-fest kind of course,” Harned said.
Added Wilner: “It just has a good vibe for us. Generally, our guys are pretty good with wedges in their hands. The greens are pretty flat, so putting isn’t extremely challenging. The weather is nice. It’s going to be 95 degrees. Just a good vibe when we get there.”
The Wolf Pack is led by Vrzich, who averages 71.52 strokes per round. He’s followed by Harned (72.0), Meek (72.41), Stephen Osborne (73.96) and Tony Gil (74.39). After losing Grant Booth, who had arguably the best college career in program history, to graduation, the Wolf Pack’s success this year has been somewhat unexpected.
“We started off the year and we didn’t know how the team was going to be and to get to where we are now, it all opened our eyes to see how good we are when we’re all on our game,” said Vrzich, adding he believes the team is good enough to make it to nationals for the fourth time in program history. “Mostly every tournament we're close to winning, which is pretty cool to see. It makes everything interesting.”
With no seniors on the roster, the future looks bright for Nevada, but the Wolf Pack is looking to close the season strong at the conference and NCAA tournaments. A first MW title isn’t out of the question.
“I think it’d be awesome,” Harned said of potentially winning the event. “It’d show how well we played this year, it’d be like the icing on the cake. It’d show this year hasn’t been a fluke or three lucky wins. I think it will really show that we are a great team and can keep up with anyone. It’d definitely be a great thing to bring home a title on Sunday.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.
MOUNTAIN WEST CHAMPIONSHIP
Course: OMNI Tucson National – Tucson, Ariz.
Play: 54 holes of stroke play, 18 holes each day
44. Colorado State
49. San Jose State
70. New Mexico
72. San Diego State
74. Boise State
118. Fresno State
178. Utah State
212. Air Force