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Pepperdine men’s golf team rode wave to top of rankings before season came to a halt

Pepperdine's William Mouw reacts after making the winning putt Feb. 8, 2020, at the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii, where he notched his first college individual title.
Pepperdine’s William Mouw sinks the winning putt Feb. 8 at the Amer Ari Invitational in Hawaii, where he notched his first college individual title.
(Michele Blunck)

The No. 1 team in the nation would not be deterred by a little rain. So the Pepperdine men’s golf team grabbed its umbrellas and coats, ready to practice. Then the Waves were met with the only thing that could stop them in their tracks.

The NCAA was canceling its winter and spring championships.

“It’s kind of just a punch in the gut,” senior Joshua McCarthy said.

The COVID-19 pandemic knocked the Waves down when they were at their highest: A No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history; one of the deepest rosters in the nation; a redshirt senior in the twilight of one the program’s best careers and a freshman just starting another.

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Coach Michael Beard said it was like “all the stars aligned.” But Pepperdine’s hope for its second NCAA title quickly turned star-crossed.

“I think this is the first time in a long time where we’ve had a realistic shot like we’re coming in with the expectation that we want to win the national championship this year,” McCarthy said. “For a school like Pepperdine, it makes [the cancellation] a little bit harder because it’s not like you have this opportunity year in and year out.”

This season has been “a long time coming,” he added.

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Beard led the Waves to five straight NCAA regionals and to the NCAA championships in 2017 and 2019, but the coach looked at a stacked lineup and easily envisioned much larger things than last year’s 11th-place finish at the championships.

Pepperdine senior golfer Joshua McCarthy
Pepperdine senior Joshua McCarthy said of the cancellation of the season over the coronavirus outbreak: “It’s kind of just a punch in the gut.”
(Jeff Golden)

Redshirt senior Sahith Theegala, who holds the school record for career scoring average, returned this season after an injury. His comeback, coupled with the recruitment of freshman William Mouw — who, at 18, won the 2019 California Amateur Championship to become one of the youngest to win the tournament — gave the Waves two superbly strong players.

Theegala and Mouw were on pace for the first under-70 single-season scoring averages in school history. The senior averaged 69.04 per round, Mouw 69.96.

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The Waves had four more players who also played at the U.S. Amateur Championship in August: senior Clay Feagler, junior RJ Manke, and sophomores Joe Highsmith and Derek Hitchner. The six-man group was tied with Arizona State for the most from one school in the field.

“We were ready to play with the big programs,” Beard said. “It didn’t matter where or when, the guys would be ready to bring their game.”

Knowing the type of talent he had, Beard loaded the scheduled to test the players. He pestered the Hawaii coach asking for a spot to the Amer Ari Invitational, an elite tournament that Pepperdine had not played in since 2006.

The USC men’s tennis team, led by seniors Brandon Holt and Riley Smith, was ranked No. 1 in the nation before the coronavirus pandemic derailed the season.

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In a field with seven top-25 teams, the Waves fell into seventh place after the first round, tormented by the course’s unique Bermuda greens. They adjusted to the difficult putting conditions and the changing wind and climbed into a tie for fourth after the second round, but they were still 12 strokes behind leader Georgia Tech.

The goal entering the final round was to just try to get a shot at the title, Beard said.

The team did much better.

The Waves fired an 18-under-par 270 on the final day to win the tournament by two shots with a final round that tied the second-best in program history.

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“It was the best win I’ve been a part of,” Beard said.

Combined with the previous weekend’s victory at the Southwest Invitational, the Waves won consecutive tournaments for the second time in program history and the first time since 1996.

On the flight home, players and coaches were still in awe of how they pulled off the comeback. The win showcased exactly what Beard loved about the team: its depth, from junior Joey Vrzich’s two birdies in the final two holes to Feagler’s even-par tournament, to the two freshmen who stole the show.

The UCLA women’s tennis team had just proved worthy of being an NCAA title contender when the coronavirus outbreak ended its season.

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Dylan Menante finished eagle-birdie-eagle and Mouw capped his tournament with a birdie and eagle before winning medalist honors in a playoff.

The talented freshmen make the uncertain future a little bit brighter for the Waves.

Beard knows Theegala, the No. 3 amateur in the world, will go pro. The other seniors, McCarthy and Feagler, could return with additional eligibility granted by the NCAA to all spring athletes.

Beard admits he doesn’t know whether the Waves can recapture the magic of the season.

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He is hopeful they can reload, though.

“The bar has been set,” Beard said. “I think that there’s so many of the guys that have experienced that that I think that they will find a way to pull everyone else along to get to that top again.”


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