Wes Sanderson | Northern Star
DeKALB — Winter has set in northern Illinois. The ground is covered by a layer of snow, turf frozen to the feel of concrete. The home of NIU Huskie golf, Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, looks more like a desolate wasteland than a Golf Digest top-100 golf course.
Though no one is hitting the fairways across Illinois, the members of the golf team are hard at work preparing for the team’s 2021 spring competition season, which is set to begin Feb. 20, in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
This year’s team has one ultimate goal in mind: winning the Mid-American Championship and securing NIU’s first NCAA regional berth in recent memory.
“The main goal is winning a MAC Championship for NIU, at the minimum,” graduate student Russell Matos said. “To go out on that kind of high note would be great.”
This sentiment was echoed in every interview conducted. Clearly, winning the MAC at Sycamore Hills Country Club is the team’s top priority.
This year’s Huskie roster consists of a veteran top-six, led by graduate students Matos, Jordan Less, Michael Mattas and undergraduate junior Tommy Dunsire, who have a combined 93 collegiate starts at NIU.
Though these four come with the most team experience, six players in total have made their presence known as being weekly contenders for the travel line-up.
“Six guys really stood out to me,” Head Coach John Carlson said. “Those being [Matos], [Mattas], [Less], [Dunsire], Reece [Nilsen] and Zach [Place].”
Nilsen is a junior transfer from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona, where he played in three events for the Antelopes his sophomore season. Sophomore Place is coming off his first season where he completed in 10 rounds with a scoring average of 75.5.
With the new season came a new schedule and a sense of belief that holds in this year’s team.
“There’s this sense we can win,” Less said. “A sense of complete belief in that.”
That belief is more than just spoken word, as players put in work over the offseason to improve for the spring season.
“A few of us really dedicated this offseason to getting better in the gym,” Less said. “Four of us have seen increases in our clubhead speeds, which will increase our distances as a whole.”
On top of hitting the gym, players took the opportunity to compete in amateur tournaments across the southern portion of the U.S. Dunsire competed in the Orlando Ameteur at Orange County National where he finished the event with a score of -4 feeling that tournament golf would jumpstart his spring season.
“I was down there for a month and a half,” Dunsire said. “So I thought what better way to get prepared than to play in a tournament and get under that pressure and have that feeling again.”
The fruits of the team’s labor will be on full display as NIU will compete eight times at tournaments that will showcase teams that make regularly scheduled appearances in the NCAA Golf Championships.
“I tried to schedule tough opponents,” Carlson said. “At the same time, scheduling events that will prepare us for the MAC Championship.”
This year’s schedule will see Carlson’s team tee it up with the likes of the University of Southern California, San Diego State University, University of California–Berkeley, the University of Illinois and 2017 NCAA National Champion University of Oklahoma.
Stiff competition for any MAC school, but something that will pay dividends as the program grows.
“We have to continue to build as a program through experiences like these,” Carlson said. “I want them to be excited, but I want them to understand this season is going to take work.”
This team does not seem to shy away from playing these heavy hitters, though.
“It can never hurt to see where the best teams are compared to where we are,” Matos said.
A larger benefit to playing such a tough schedule is understanding one’s opponents come the second time around.
Coaching this offseason has also seen a jump in the program’s readiness for playing on the bigger stages this spring.
“It hasn’t been as much technical advice or technique work at practices,” Carslon said. “These guys really took to task the larger aspect of planning and being mentally prepared, which will let us compete week to week.”
Carlson said he believes in his team and the success this line-up can achieve.
“We’re going to go to the highest ranking NIU has seen in a long time,” Carlson said. “If [Less], [Dunsire] and [Neilsen] play well, those three are going to be asked to carry the load, but they’re also ready for that.”
High aspirations from a coach who has brought new life to the roster, but the players feel up to assuming the mantle Carlson has set for them.
“I’ve always loved being in that lead role,” Dunsire said. “It’s only going to push me harder and have me [Mattas] and [Less] push everyone else around us.”
The team’s quest for its first MAC title begins Feb. 20 in a dual match-up against Arkansas State University. The dual meet will be contested at Ridgepointe Golf Club in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Following the team’s dual meet, NIU will travel west to San Diego, California to compete in the Lamkin Grip San Diego Classic from March 8 through March 10.