RICHMOND, Va. – There's a youth movement afoot on the VCU Golf team.
When the Rams tee off their spring campaign on Monday, Feb. 25 at the Dell Walker Intercollegiate in Long Beach, Calif., their starting lineup will feature three freshmen and two juniors. There is just one senior on VCU's roster. Rams' Coach Matt Ball believes it's the first time in his 14 seasons he has fielded a regular starting lineup with nary a senior.
While youth is often stereotypically associated with a number of pitfalls, Ball believes his group of bright-eyed golfers is exactly what the program needed.
"I think it gives you excitement," Ball said. "I think that they can do some things now, and to watch them grow over the years will be fun. I really think these guys have the ability. Now, will they be able to stand up at the right time and bring the right game at the right time, [we'll see]. But they've got the ability to win a tournament or two and maybe the A-10 Championship."
There are plenty of reasons for Ball's enthusiasm about this year's squad, the first being its inherent talent. On paper, VCU's freshman class of Adam Ball, Steffen Harm and Jake McNulty might be one of its best ever.
Adam Ball (pictured, right), Coach Ball's youngest son and brother of VCU junior golfer Matt Jr., boasts an eye-popping junior golf resume. In 2011, Adam won seven major tournaments and rose to as high as No. 2 nationally in the Golfweek U.S. Junior Rankings. He is the first four-time VSGA Junior Champion in history and has been named VSGA Junior Golfer of the Year three times.
In the fall, Harm led the Rams in scoring average (74.20) and placed 10th at the ODU/OBX Collegiate. McNulty, a 17-year-old rapid climber, ranked third on the team in scoring (75.53) in five fall competitions and recorded one top-five finish.
Meanwhile, upperclassmen Rocky Khara and Matt Ball Jr., both juniors, have proven track records of success. As a freshman, Khara placed second at the Colonial Athletic Association Championship, and overall he registered three top-15 finishes in his first two seasons as a Ram. Matt Ball Jr. burst onto the scene in 2010-11 as a freshman. Matt Jr. led the team in scoring average (74.00) that season and finished in the top 15 three times in 11 starts. He was named First Team All-CAA for his efforts.
Senior Adrian Parada, as well as sophomores Simon Taylor and Gino Vandenberg, provide the Rams with outstanding. Top to bottom, the Rams are deeper and more dangerous than they've been in several years.
"Now, nobody has to carry the team," Coach Ball said. "We've got five guys that can all shoot scores, and if every round you can get four of them or worst-case scenario, three of them that play pretty good, that's when you're in contention. I think everybody can play a little more comfortably now that everything isn't on them."
Despite his optimism, Coach Matt Ball isn't ready to weigh his team down with predictions or pile large expectations on his players' shoulders, even if he believes them to be championship-caliber.
"I just want the guys to work real hard and enjoy working hard and getting ready so they're excited and prepared to play well," Coach Ball said. "I think that if they feel good and they feel well about their games when they get to the tournament that it'll show. I just want to go to every tournament with the right attitude and the belief system that we can play really well and give us a chance to win."
Meanwhile, VCU's starting lineup isn't the only thing that'll be different this year. The Rams have migrated from the CAA, where they won eight championships and finished second twice in 17 seasons, to the Atlantic 10, which has been dominated in recent years by Charlotte. The 49ers won six straight titles before George Washington captured a rain-shortened championship in 2012.
In the fall's final Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, Charlotte was 67th, followed by Richmond (128), VCU (130) and Xavier (155). The Rams' ranking does not reflect the addition of Adam Ball, who enrolled at VCU in time for the spring semester. Rankings aside, VCU is positioned to provide a stiff challenge to the 49ers at the A-10 Championship April 26-27 in Heron Bay, Fla.
Said the elder Ball of his team's chances this season: "I think we have a group of guys who can get in the van and say, 'alright boys, let's go win us a golf tournament.'"