SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In November, Vanderbilt standout John Augenstein declared his intention to become a professional golfer.
As momentous as that news was, it was a blow to the Vandy lineup and a Commodores’ team considered at the time to be a contender for a national title. With the All-American exiting stage left the chances Vanderbilt could hang with the nation’s best took a major hit, the experts murmured.
The Dores heard that chatter.
“We couldn’t really ignore it,” Vanderbilt sophomore Matthew Riedel said. “We definitely heard people saying that or not really giving us as much respect as we deserved and earned – especially toward the end of the season. We always believed in ourselves and didn’t really let the outside noise get to us.
“But we always felt like there was something to prove as a team.”
There was certainly an adjustment in the early part of the calendar year sans Augenstein.
Vanderbilt finished seventh at the Gator Invitational in February and then ended the regular season with a pair of fourth-place finishes at the Old Waverly Collegiate and Birmingham Invitational, respectively. It didn’t necessarily have a ton of momentum going into the postseason and certainly wasn’t the odds-on favorite to win a championship.
The Commodores, as would become somewhat of a calling card for the squad, never panicked. They gave themselves a chance to turn it on at just the right time by qualifying for match play at the SEC Championships in Georgia.
“They’re a pretty even-keeled group,” Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh said. “They’re never too high, never too low. They’re just playing and not dealing with huge egos so everyone is playing together. I just think we got to watch the team grow up this spring.”
Senior Harrison Ott led the charge through match play in team wins over Tennessee, Alabama and Arkansas, respectively. Freshman Cole Sherwood had a breakout weekend. Sophomore William Moll and Reid Davenport played with swagger and confidence as the anchors of a young lineup. Riedel stayed steady as she goes.
An SEC tournament trophy meant a trip to NCAA Regionals – a short trip albeit down the road to Kingston Springs. It also meant a change in the lineup as junior Michael Shears moved into Ott’s spot in the active five.
Vandy didn’t miss a beat.
It tore through The Golf Club of Tennessee Course to the tune of an 11-shot victory. Suddenly the Commodores were one of the hottest teams in America.
“We really did it together. We really found a way for all of us to play together and just become a true team,” Riedel said. “We struggled right at the beginning of the spring season but then we all kind of figured out what we had to do, trusted our plan and how we were all preparing for everything.
“By the end of everything, came home with an SEC championship, won the Regionals and made match play. That’s all you can really ask for. Sometimes you get beat by a good team like we did (Tuesday).”
Vandy’s 4-1 loss to Oklahoma State in match play Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championship on the Raptor Course at the Grayhawk Golf Club was a difficult result to accept, but not a devastating one. The Cowboys were nationally ranked inside the top three for much of the season and had just finished second during the stroke play competition of the tournament.
Three of Tuesday’s matches between the Dores and Cowboys were decided by less than one point and all took at least 15 holes before a winner was declared. In the moments after defeat, the Dores still had the wherewithal to understand the expectations for 2021-22.
“On the other side of that, I thought our kids just really grew up this spring and this week,” Limbaugh said. “I’m super proud of what this team was able to accomplish this spring. We got everybody coming back and got a couple new guys coming in that are going to be able to help us. We just hope to keep raising our bar.
“Coaching staff needs to get better, players need to get better. The goal is to always be improving and if you’re not improving then you’re getting stale. We know what we need to do and that’s what our focus will be on in the offseason and heading into next year.”
Not only does Vanderbilt return all five golfers who competed in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the national championship, it also brings in two of the nation’s top recruits in Jackson Van Paris and Gordon Sargent. That duo will make a team which didn’t have an individual championship during the entire season, yet managed to finish in the top five in eight different tournaments, even stronger.
So while the desert sun set on Vandy’s season Tuesday, it will rise again to shine light on a program and team that continues to compete at elite levels.
“All of us on this team right now can play and we got two other guys (coming in) that are going to be really, really helpful for our team,” Riedel said. “I know each of us are going to get better over the summer so we got some youth and we got some depth which makes for an exciting future.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.