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UNLV golf teams looking ahead to postseason play

Whether it’s the first-year coach for the UNLV women’s golf program, or the veteran coach of the men’s program, there remains one constant: success on the links for the Rebels.

Amy Bush is wrapping up her inaugural season at the helm for the women’s team, and it’s been a successful campaign, with perhaps more success looming in NCAA postseason play. Dwaine Knight, meanwhile, has his men’s squad gearing up for the postseason, where the Rebels coach of 23 years has a long history of success.

The women’s team took second in the Mountain West Conference championships two weekends ago, led by Therese Koelbaek’s first-place finish individually. There are often challenges for a first-year head coach, and Bush says there have certainly been some in her case. But she was groomed well for the job by Missy Ringler, who took over the program in its second year back in 2002 and basically built it into a perennially strong outfit before leaving on her own terms last May.

Basically, Bush picked up right where Ringler left off, as Ringler guided UNLV to three Mountain West titles, eight NCAA regional bids and three NCAA Championships berths.

“Missy really did a good job in helping me prepare,” said Bush, who was Ringler’s top assistant for three years before taking over. “A lot that I expected to happen, happened. Nothing really threw me for a loop. There was just more decision-making.”

One thing that made such decision-making easier: having Koelbaek, the team’s seasoned senior star. Koelbaek was tied for the lead after two rounds of the MWC tourney in Phoenix — along with fellow Rebel Ellis Keenan and BYU’s Maggie Yuan — then went out and threw a dart of 4-under 68 to post a 7-under 209 total and win by four strokes.

Koelbaek was named the conference’s golfer of the year, making her an all-MWC performer all four years at UNLV, and she’s a two-time honorable mention All-American, with a possible third All-America honor coming in the next few weeks. The top-flight student was also named the school’s female athlete of the year for 2010-11.

“Therese is such an outstanding student-athlete,” Bush said. “She’s a hard worker and definitely deserves all the accolades she’s receiving.”

She’s led the squad, helping Bush develop a few players with the potential to fill her spot when she moves on to what her coach expects to be a successful LPGA career. One of those up-and-comers is Keenan, who contended for the MWC title and ended up fifth in the tourney.

“She’s just really been working hard on her game, and everything is coming around for her,” Bush said of Keenan. “You could see the talent in her, and for her to be able to showcase it was great. I knew she could do well, just watching her, so it didn’t come as a surprise.

“Therese is such a talented golfer. I’m just excited that we have some current players and some recruits who can fill that spot. Ellis will be in that mix. She’s talented enough to do that.”

There’s still some work left to do this season, though, with Koelbaek the chief part of the equation for UNLV. The Rebels will next head to the NCAA regionals in South Bend, Ind., May 5-7. A top-eight finish in their region — one of three — will earn the Rebels a spot in the NCAA Championships, which they’ve missed the past two seasons.

“I feel confident about the team we have and our ability to take it to the next level,” Bush said. “With Therese’s leadership, we have a great opportunity to do that.”

Knight, meanwhile, is preparing his men’s team for the MWC tourney, May 5-7 in Tucson, Ariz. UNLV has had a typically solid spring, with four top-five finishes, including a second-place effort in the Wyoming Desert Classic at Palm Desert, Calif., in February and a strong second-place effort two weeks ago at the PING Cougar Classic in Provo, Utah.

Junior Derek Ernst has been the steady hand all year for the Rebels, but in the PING tourney, he got plenty of backing from his teammates. Sophomore Kevin Penner paced UNLV, tying for fourth with an 8-under 208 total in the three-round event, and freshman Blake Biddle took seventh at 210, followed by Ernst in ninth at 212.

“The last couple tournaments have been good,” Knight said. “It gives us a little momentum going into the conference tournament.

“We’ve got a young team. But three guys are really playing well: Derek, Kevin and Blake. We’ve gotten pretty consistent rounds from them, and (in Provo), all three were in the top 10. No other team had three players in the top 10. … And Blake has been a nice surprise as a freshman.”

However, it’s the top four players that count for a team score, and that’s one area Knight wants to see more improvement in.

“We have a pretty big drop-off,” he said. “For us to be competitive, we’ve got to have better rounds out of our number 4 and 5 players. If we can close that gap a little bit, with just one strong round, that could be a difference maker.”

For the Mountain West tournament, and the expected NCAA regionals bid and the hoped-for NCAA Championships berth, Knight said it will come down to one factor.

“It almost always goes back to how important a shot is,” he said. “When we’re in a tight position, the value of a shot really starts to come out. We’re learning that as a team.”

Knight said his squad is solid off the tee and on the green. But the shot-value issue comes to play between those two spots.

“We’re a pretty good driving team and a pretty good putting team,” he said. “Where we make a lot of mistakes is, we get a great drive and an easy wedge into the green, and we end up making bogey.

“That’s what we’re trying to shore up. If we take care of that — and it’s part concentration, part practice and part (course) management — we’ll be in good shape.”

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