The Bradley men’s golf team ended its regular season on Tuesday as the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. The Braves totaled a score of 883, 15 strokes ahead of second-place Southern Illinois, at the par-72 Dalhousie Country Club in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
On day one of the competition, junior Drake Bushong, senior Ethan Brue and junior Michael Mounce placed first, second and third in overall competition, respectively. Bushong finished the day with a round best 3-under-par 69.
Head Coach Jeff Roche said the team approached the second day carefully after finishing with a 19-stroke lead at 587.
“You have to be cautious because you get such a big lead,” Roche said. “Your whole mindset needs to be: you’ve got to go in trying to grow that lead, but yet you don’t want to be so overly aggressive that you make bad choices.”
Brue and Mounce tied at the end of day two for second place at 220, and Bushong solidified the Valley’s individual title at 217 with a par-72 in round three. He became the first Brave to capture the individual title since Dave Wettlaufer in 1985.
“It was nice knowing that we had a large lead and didn’t have to play perfect to win,” Bushong said. “I know that freed me up to just go out and play the best I could that day … to get the individual title too, that was just icing on the cake.”
Throughout each round, Roche purposely kept the score a secret from players to keep them focused.
“It was a big advantage for the players not to know,” Roche said. “It was just nice that they were just playing golf and not stressing about what place we were in.”
Roche said the team’s focus persisted until the team officially clinched the title, then the celebration began.
“It was an unbelievable feeling figuring out that we were going to be champions when I finished my 18th hole,” Mounce said. “We all put in a lot of hard work and dedication in the classroom and on the course, and it felt like it all finally paid off for us.”
“I wasn’t sure where we stood during the last round until the 18th hole when I asked coach [Roche],” Bushong said. “So knowing that we had a big lead and that we were going to win, it was pretty awesome to be able to walk up the last hole and see all the guys watching knowing we had won.”
“I was so excited for the guys,” Roche said. “They have worked so hard all year. I thought about a lot of the guys that I’ve coached through the years that have helped us get to this point, and all those thoughts just start coming back to you.”
The Braves will now advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1955. Roche experienced NCAA regional play as a volunteer assistant with the Bradley women’s golf team in 2002 and 2003. He said the next potential matchup will be tough to prepare for.
“We’ll prepare the things we know we can control,” Roche said. “It’s going to be roughly three weeks before we compete … we’ve got to stay in a competitive mindset. Three weeks is a long time.”
Despite having no prior NCAA experience, the team is approaching the unfamiliar challenge with optimism.
“We ultimately feel like we belong there and are excited to run our game plan to the best of our ability,” Mounce said. “We are going to focus on enjoying the tournament and controlling the things that we can control.”
Whatever the outcome, Roche said that the NCAA appearance will enhance the golf program’s prominence.
“We’ve got a great program, great student-athletes that are apart of it and now it should get the word out that much more,” Roche said. “Hopefully, all the former golf alumni and people who have been apart of the program all these years can enjoy it as much as we do.”
Pairing matchups will be announced at 4:30 p.m. May 2 on the Golf Channel.