Photo by Sam Morgan

The Jackets were back in Hawaii last week. Near the beginning of each spring season, Coach Bruce Heppler took along a team of five and one individual to compete in the Amer Ari Invitational. This year, the tournament was held in Waikoloa, Hawaii, on the Big Island.

Tech is currently ranked No. 26 in the country and will join seven top 25 teams. The large field featured Oklahoma State (No. 4), Stanford (No. 6), Southern Cal (No. 7), Auburn (No. 8), Texas (No. 11), Texas Tech (No. 17) and defending NCAA champion Oregon (No. 22). This tournament presents a unique opportunity for the coaching staff with regards to both player development and recruiting. Per head coach Bruce Heppler, over 80 high schools were in attendance. As one of the few East coast universities in attendance, Tech was in a great position to gain exposure to potential recruits.

The tournament also presented a unique opportunity for younger players on the golf team to gain valuable experience golfing in a completely different part of the country. Coach Heppler emphasized how this is the first time traveling this far for many of his players, and that it would be a fantastic opportunity for them to learn and grow. For the players who qualified to compete in Hawaii, they had the opportunity to not only play golf, but also meet various friends of Tech golf, those who make the team’s success possible year after year.

The qualifying rounds for the tournament were marked by long, intense competition. Each of the eleven golfers on the team played six rounds of golf. The lowest score in each of the first three rounds and the second three rounds were guaranteed a spot on the team, and subsequent spots were determined by the next lowest scores. In an unprecedented turn of  events, three freshmen qualified to compete at the Amer Ali Invitational this year.

Andy Ogletree, Tyler Strafaci and Luke Schniederjans (brother of PGA tour golfer and Tech alumnus Ollie Schniederjans) took up three of the five spots for team stroke play. Rounding out the team were juniors James Clark and Michael Pisciotta. Junior Chris Petefish also competed individually. This talented freshman class spent the fall pushing each other and older members of the team during qualifying rounds for tournaments, with each shining in his own unique moments. This is the first event where three freshmen are competing together. In Heppler’s view, this is the natural next step in the growth of these student-athletes. As they begin to take more spots for themselves, they will ensure that any team Tech sends to a tournament will be in form and performing at a high level. As the level of performance up and down the team roster increases, iron will sharpen iron and Tech will be a better team overall.

While the Jackets have the requisite individual skill to hold their own against any of the top teams in the country, the last pieces of development that Coach Heppler is looking for come in the form of teamwork, accountability and leadership. In match-play events last fall, where individuals from different teams compete directly against each other, Tech succeeded in soundly defeating Georgia (No. 14) 8.5-3.5 and Stanford (No. 6) 8-4. The key moving forward will be for the Jackets to be able to aggregate the individual talent to create a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, which are significant in and of themselves.

As the spring season gets under way, the Jackets have a packed schedule to look forward to. They will be competing in the Puerto Rico Classic on February 19-21 and the Seminole Intercollegiate in Tallahassee, Florida soon after (March 10-12). The long term goal for Tech golf at this point is to continue to improve in the tournaments leading up to the ACC Championship in late April.

Success in that will ultimately lead to an NCAA Regional berth and an NCAA Championship appearance if the season goes as Heppler would like. The first steps towards determining whether that goal will become reality will be taken thousands of miles in Waikoloa over the next few days. Heppler’s history suggests the Jackets are well prepared.