SUNRISE BEACH, MO. -- The Southern Illinois men's golf team captured its second Missouri Valley Conference championship title in the last four years and just the second in school history, rallying to beat pretournament favorite Illinois State by 10 strokes on Tuesday. With the win, SIU claimed the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Men's Golf Championships and will represent the MVC at the NCAA Regionals, May 12-15.
The Salukis (-5) entered Tuesday's final round trailing ISU by a single stroke, but quickly seized the lead with seven birdies on the front nine at The Club at Porto Cima in Sunrise Beach, Mo. They pulled away down the stretch with a remarkable 15 birdies for a 12-under par score on the back nine. Both the 7-under par team score today and 5-under par tournament team score were school bests at a conference championship event.
"This moment, this opportunity is exactly what we trained for all year long," said SIU head coach Justin Fetcho. "I couldn't be any more proud of how this team stayed mentally tough and executed golf shots down the stretch. It's just a testament to their talent and belief in themselves."
SIU won the tournament behind a balanced scoring effort, as Peyton Wilhoit (-3) finished third on the leaderboard, while Luke Gannon (E) and Matthis Besard (E) tied for fifth place. All three golfers earned All-Conference honors and Besard was named Newcomer of the Year. Senior Hunter York tied for 10th place and had the tournament's low score of the day with a 4-under par 68.
"Everybody was excited and chomping at the bit to play this morning," said Wilhoit. "There was no doubt in my mind that these guys were going to play well."
Prior to the MVC Championship, the Salukis and Redbirds played each other in the same tournament three times this spring, and Illinois State finished on top all three times and by an average of 11 strokes. ISU entered the week ranked No. 72 in the nation and was the unanimous choice to win the tournament in a poll of the nine head coaches.
"Even though they beat us three times, deep down we knew we hadn't pieced together our best golf," Fetcho said. "We went to battle with a really good team in Illinois State. They beat the No. 5 team in the country last week. Our guys were not afraid of the challenge. In our minds we knew we could beat them. We went out and took it, we earned it."
Wilhoit became the first golfer in school history to win All-Conference honors all four years. Although he missed out on medalist honors by one stroke, today's team finish was especially sweet for SIU's senior leader. Last year, Wilhoit won MVC Golfer-of-the-Year honors but the team settled for second place.
"Peyton's whole career he's had a chip on his shoulder," Fetcho said. "He didn't want to go out like that with that performance last year. There was no doubt in anyone's mind in our program that he was going to go out and perform like the player he's capable of being."
Gannon carded 2-under par rounds of 70 in both the first and third round. He, too, had to overcome adversity after surrendering five strokes at the end of the second round with a triple bogey and two bogeys.
"When we needed seniors to step up the most, Luke and Peyton did it," Fetcho said. "They were tremendous in crunchtime."
Besard, a freshman, was the team's scoring leader entering the day. He birdied four of the first 10 holes but bogeyed five of the last eight. Nevertheless, he posted his best tournament finish of the spring season. His final round 74 didn't count toward Southern's team scores because the team's fifth golfer, Frankie Thomas, rallied from a double-bogey on the first hole to post a final round 73.
Perhaps no player exemplified the gritty, never-say-die approach of the Salukis more than York. The senior shot an 8-over par 80 in the first round but rallied to close out the tournament with a 68 in a final round that featured five birdies on the back nine.
"My goodness, not enough words to say to do it justice about his back nine," Fetcho marveled. "We preached patience and believing in yourself, and the back nine just opened up for him and he believed the putts were going to fall."
Added York, "I came out and was hitting the ball amazing on the front nine, was hitting good putts, they just weren't falling. Then the floodgates opened."
The announcement of regional selections will take place on Wednesday, May 1 at 8 p.m. on Golf Channel's Golf Central and streamed live on the Golf Channel website. The Salukis are guaranteed a spot at one of the six NCAA Regional tournament sites, where 81 teams and 45 individuals will compete for a shot at the NCAA team and individual finals, May 24-29.
"The great thing about these guys is this is just the start of their postseason run," Fetcho said. "We're not going to Regionals for a celebration. Our team and our seniors believe we can get to the national championship."
1 Southern Illinois 291 287 281 859 -5
2 Illinois State 285 292 292 869 +5
3 Missouri State 299 292 293 884 +20
4 Bradley University 302 301 291 894 +30
5 Valparaiso Univ. 303 302 297 902 +38
6 Northern Iowa 305 312 301 918 +54
7 Drake 306 309 306 921 +57
8 Loyola U.- Chicago 306 301 315 922 +58
9 Evansville 319 306 312 937 +73
SIU INDIVIDUAL SCORES
3 Peyton Wilhoit (3) 71 72 70 213
T5 Luke Gannon (1) 70 76 70 216
T5 Matthis Besard (2) 75 67 74 216
T10 Hunter York (4) 80 72 68 220
T17 Frankie Thomas (5) 75 79 73 227