UNLV men's golf opens year with flair

UNLV men's golf coach Dwaine Knight isn't sure whether he believes in omens, but he does have a pretty good feeling about the season ahead.

The Rebels opened fall play last week by rallying to win the Gene Miranda Falcon Invitational at the Eisenhower Golf Club's Blue Course in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"The key was for us to go there and play aggressive golf," said Knight, who begins his 25th year at UNLV. "We did a good job of that, and it gives us a lot of hope."

UNLV was second in the 19-team field heading into the tournament's last day, then shot 5 under in the final round to catch Colorado and force a playoff. The Rebels topped the Buffaloes by two strokes on the first playoff hole to claim the championship.

"I'm real proud of my guys," Knight said. "It was a great start. We played really well and set a new tournament record (20-under 844)."

Knight saw many reasons to be excited about the next few months. Four of his golfers finished in the top 15, with junior Kevin Penner shooting 4-under 68 in the final round to finish tied for first with Ball State's T.J. Carpenter at 7-under 209.

"That was pretty awesome," Knight said of his top finisher. "But everyone contributed. We got good play out of all five guys."

The Rebels travel to Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday, where they will try to keep the momentum alive at the two-day William H. Tucker Invitational.

Knight said he will approach the next few weeks with cautious optimism.

"I'm anxious to see how we do in the next couple of tournaments," said Knight, who has just two seniors on his roster. "I think we're going to learn a lot more on this next road trip."

Much will hinge on the play of two-time Mountain West Conference golfer of the year Derek Ernst. Though the senior from Clovis, Calif., finished 15th overall in last week's tourney, he recently was named by Golf World as one of the nation's top 50 college players. He led the Rebels last year with a 71.93 scoring average, eight top-10 finishes and three top-five finishes, and went on to win the individual championship in the conference tourney.

"Derek was fighting a cold last week," Knight said. "But he shot two really good rounds and hit a huge birdie putt on the playoff hole."

Other key players include sophomore Blake Biddle, who finished tied for eighth in Colorado Springs, and sophomore Nicholas Maruri, who tied with Ernst for 15th.

"Biddle shot two great rounds right out of the box," Knight said. "He got us going, and he also knocked in a big birdie on the playoff hole."

Freshmen Carl Johnson and Kurt Kitayama also look promising, and senior Colby Smith should be another key player when he returns from a wrist injury.

The Rebels follow this weekend's tournament with an appearance at the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate in Birmingham, Ala., before finishing the fall at the Herb Wimberly Intercollegiate in Las Cruces, N.M.

Knight, whose teams have played in a record 23 straight NCAA Regionals, said he's looking forward to the possibilities this season.

"We've got really good momentum and a real positive atmosphere," he said.