The UNLV men’s golf team has set such a high standard of excellence in coach Dwaine Knight’s 22 years at the helm that anything short of reaching the NCAA Championships can be a tough pill to swallow.
While that was the case this season, year after year, there’s one thing that’s all but guaranteed in the UNLV athletics program: Knight’s squad will reach postseason play.
By reaching the NCAA regionals, contested two weeks ago, UNLV extended its national-record streak to 21 consecutive regional bids, a mark Knight marveled at despite his Rebels falling just short of reaching the NCAA Championships.
“We’re proud to get in the playoffs, and to have the streak going is really gratifying.” Knight said. “We’ve had a good run. The only way you can win a national championship is to be in the hunt at regionals — you’ve got to get to regionals to able to do that.”
Two weeks ago in Austin, Texas, UNLV was definitely in the hunt before falling painstakingly short of earning its 16th NCAA Championships berth. Needing a top-five finish, the Rebels took seventh, just four strokes short of advancing in the 54-hole tournament.
“It’s painful to get that close and not finish it,” said Knight, whose team was in fourth place through two rounds. “That’s pretty close, and a lot of it was at the very end of the last round, on 17 and 18. We were really in great position going to the final holes, and we didn’t finish well.
“That was difficult. Those are tough losses to not complete those kinds of tournaments.”
Perhaps the bigger loss to overcome this season was that of star senior Seung-Su Han in November.
Last fall, Han reached the PGA Tour Qualifying School’s final stage for the second straight year. In 2007, he decided to return to UNLV to get a little more seasoning. This time around, though, the opportunity to turn pro and compete on the second-tier Nationwide Tour was too good to pass up.
“Losing Seung in the fall, we didn’t have that guy for the other players to look up to,” Knight said. “We played pretty steady with him in the three or four events he competed in. I thought we’d be able to step up (without him), and we certainly had some great moments.
“But we had times when we couldn’t pull through, when guys were struggling.”
All that said, it was still a solid year for the Rebels, who won the William H. Tucker Invitational last fall and their own Southern Highlands Collegiate Championship in March, and had six more top-five finishes for the season.
Plus, with Han’s departure, Knight was able to plug more golfers into the lineup.
“On the bright side, I got to play a couple of freshmen, sophomores and juniors,” he said. “We had some guys really get a lot of experience and get to play with some pressure. They really felt the pressure and the disappointment, so hopefully they’ll come back even more committed.”
Knight expects nothing less, with all eight players returning for the 2009-’10 season, including all-Mountain West Conference team members Eddie Olson, who will be a senior, and Derek Ernst, who will be a sophomore. Olson led the Rebels at regionals with a ninth-place finish at 5-over 218.
“I’m really looking forward to it, with this group coming back, and four new guys coming in,” Knight said. “We’ve got some guys who have been in the fire, and I’m really optimistic about next year. I think we have really great things to look forward to.”