It’s a rare occurrence, one that seems to come around as often as Halley’s comet.
UNLV’s men’s golf team, which has become accustomed to being at the top of the Mountain West Conference and viewed as a national title contender, finds itself as an underdog on the eve of its spring season.
The Rebels, ranked No. 17 in the latest Golfweek poll, begin play today in the 54-hole Arizona Invitational at Tucson, Ariz. They join conference foes Colorado State and Texas Christian in the rankings’ top 20. The Rams are No. 15 in the Golfweek poll while the Horned Frogs are No. 20. San Diego State, Brigham Young and New Mexico also are expected to field strong teams this season.
“We haven’t had that role in quite awhile,” UNLV coach Dwaine Knight said. “But it’s somewhat exciting. The chemistry is really good, and that may help us get to where we want to be.
“The conference is loaded this year. We probably have more depth of quality than ever before.”
Motivation aside, the Rebels are going to need a lot to win a Mountain West title, something they haven’t done since 2002. They are going to have to find a way to make up for the loss of their best player, Seung-su Han, who gave up the remainder of his senior season and turned pro in December after gaining his card on the Nationwide Tour.
“When you lose your top player, it puts pressure on everyone to pick up the slack,” Knight said. “Eddie Olson had a great fall for us, and hopefully he’ll be able to lead us with (Han) gone.”
Olson, a junior from Aptos, Calif., was the medalist at last year’s Mountain West championships and was the first UNLV player to capture an individual title at a tournament since 2006.
Knight also is hoping junior Johnny Pinjuv and freshman Derek Ernst will keep the Rebels competitive.
“Johnny has a lot of natural ability,” Knight said of Pinjuv, a transfer after one year at Southern California who was the 2003 Nevada state high school champion for Bishop Gorman. “But he has the talent to be a great player.”
Ernst had an impressive fall, with two top-five finishes.
“He filled a big role for us,” Knight said of Ernst, one of three freshmen on the squad. “He’s a real competitor, and we’re looking for him to continue to play well this spring.”
While the Rebels try to make up for losing Han, they’re also going to have to do a better job of finishing what they started. Too often last year, UNLV faltered in the latter stages of tournaments.
“It’s going to be important that we be good finishers,” Knight said. “Every shot has to count.”
Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@ reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913.