College notes: Oakland men's golf secures first NCAA bid, celebrates with Wendy's

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The Oakland men's golf team has had trouble stringing three good rounds together.

Actually, to be more accurate, it's had trouble stringing any rounds together.

The Golden Grizzlies had to pull out of two late-season tournaments — the first for direct COVID-19 reasons, the second for preventative COVID-19 measures with the season's most important tournament, the Horizon League championships, looming — so head coach Nick Pumford really had no clue what to expect from his team when it headed to Birck Boilermaker Golf Complex in West Lafayette, Indiana, this past week.

Oakland's Thomas Giroux was medalist at the Horizon League championships.

To top it off, the team's No. 3-ranked player, Midland redshirt senior Cameron Lippoldt, was unavailable because of COVID-19 contact tracing, so he was replaced by a struggling grad student, England's Chris Handy, who recently was benched.

"We were definitely the underdog," Pumford said. "Things were piling up against us.

"But, I don't know, it just clicked. It clicked."

Oakland finally strung together those three good rounds and won the Horizon League tournament championship Tuesday, beating runner-up Wright State, the heavy favorite going in, by seven strokes. The victory secured the Golden Grizzlies their first NCAA Tournament appearance in at least the school's Division I era.

Oakland will learn where it's starting the NCAAs on May 5, when the Selection Show will be aired on Golf Channel. Regional play begins May 17 in either New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington or Arizona.

The Golden Grizzlies join at least the Michigan State women among state teams to make the NCAAs. MSU opens May 10 in Louisville, Kentucky, it learned Wednesday.

The Big Ten men's tournament is this weekend in Carmel, Indiana, and Michigan State, led by Canton senior and three-time Big Ten player of the week James Piot, has an outside shot to join the women in the NCAAs.

These are the first NCAA golf championships to be held since 2019, because last year's tournaments were canceled amid the early stages of the pandemic. Oakland thought it had a good team last year, too, but never learned if it was good enough.

"We've gone through so much in the last year-and-a-half," Pumford said. "For our seniors right now, this is just the cherry on the top.

"We had a great team last year and would've contended for the title, but then, a lot of teams could say that. Just to be able to actually do it, it's exciting."

Thomas Giroux, a senior from Georgetown, Ontario, paced Oakland at the Horizon League tournament, earning medalist honors with a three-day total of 2 under par. 

Handy finished tied for third, at 1 over, and Canadian freshman Yaroslav Ilyenko finished tied for eighth at 5 over.

Those are three key international players on the roster for Pumford, who knows the realities of recruiting the state — Michigan and Michigan State typically get the premier local talent — so he makes it a goal of getting at least one international player and one state player for each recruiting class.

Handy actually missed the team's last tournament, at East Carolina in late March, because he simply didn't make the lineup.

He was back in there for the Horizon League championships, at a Pete Dye course that seemed to fit his game from the start. 

"It's tricky coming out of the winter time," Pumford said. "You're hitting balls indoors and it's hard to get into a rhythm, and he wasn't able to get into a rhythm. He has some trouble driving the ball. He's definitely, by far, our longest guy, but keeping it straight sometimes is an issue. It's something he's battled his whole career.

"But going to this golf course, it set up perfectly for him. There's a clear one-way miss you could get away with, and big misses as well in spots. He drove the ball beautifully."

Oakland uses analytics to chart its progress, and Handy gained a whole stroke off the tee during the three rounds.

Rounding out Oakland's Horizon League haul were graduate student Kyle Petrovich (Bloomfield Hills) and junior Colin Sikkenga (Kalamazoo Christian), who tied for 13th.

Oakland, despite ranking in the high 100s nationally, led the Horizon League tournament wire-to-wire, and the Golden Grizzlies stayed calm as could be during the final round Tuesday. Pumford was a wreck, but sensed early it might be his team's day.

The big sign came on the 10th hole, a reachable par 5 with a big tree that borders the green on the right and water that borders on the left. It's a demanding approach.

Giroux hit a 7-iron approach that was wayward to the right. It hit the tree and rattled around, before being spit out 15 feet from the hole. He two-putted for an easy birdie.

"At that time," said Pumford, "I was like, the golf gods are on our side."

And now, too, so is the hardware. The team treated itself to a modest celebration, with a trip through the Wendy's drive-thru on the van ride back to campus Tuesday.

Speaking out

The ACLU of Michigan has joined the effort of the Central Michigan men's indoor and outdoor track and field team to get the program reinstated.

The program was cut last May amid a budget crunch in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. School officials say it will save the department $600,000 annually. An accounting firm working with the committee to reinstate suggests the department's annual savings are closer to $100,000.

But program supporters, like those of the Michigan State men's and women's swimming and diving programs, hope they can convince the university to change course, like Clemson recently did with men's track and field, and like Iowa did with women's swimming and diving.

The Committee To Reinstate and the ACLU have called on Central Michigan president Robert Davies to listen and consider a different course, particularly with how the decision to cut the program impacts Black student-athletes.

“There will be a lot of kids, minority kids, that will not be afforded the same opportunities I was given, and I have a problem with that," program alum Rodney Lackey, now associate athletic director at Texas Tech, said in a statement.

A Change.org petition to reinstate the program was started Wednesday, and had garnered nearly 500 signatures as of 3 p.m.

In 2020, 29 Division I schools cut a total of 85 sports teams, with some being reinstated.

This & that

►Brian Morehouse, head coach of the Hope College women's basketball team that has won 45 consecutive games, was named Division III WBCA coach of the year for a second consecutive year. Hope doesn't have a national championship to show for its epic run — the eighth-longest winning streak in DIII — because this year's tournament was canceled, as was last year's, because of COVID-19, but the school is pondering ways to honor the two teams. A banner-raising ceremony next fall could be one possibility. Hope was 29-0 in 2019-20 and 16-0 this past season.

►In more golf news, Loyola-Chicago is going to the NCAA Tournament, thanks in large part to senior Justin LaFrance (Lakeland). He earned a top-10 finish in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, finishing with rounds of 77, 73 and 78.

►Henry Ford College's Aseel Almudhala (125 pounds) was named wrestler of the year by the Michigan Community College Athletic Association. Almudhala, who plans to transfer to Wayne State in two years, lost in the quarterfinals at nationals last week.

►Oakland, with the only sanctioned varsity esports team in Division I in the state, already is growing, adding a fourth game, Overwatch, starting in the fall. The program will add eight student-athletes for that game, and six total for its previous three games, League of Legends, Rocket League and Super Smash Bros.

►The Western Michigan men's tennis team won the Mid-American Conference regular-season title. Because the MAC eliminated a bunch of league tournaments amid budget issues last May, including tennis, that secures the Broncos an NCAA Tournament bid.

►The Wayne State women's golf team, founded in 2014, has earned a third straight NCAA bid, and will start play Monday in Carmel, Indiana, with hopes of making the championships at TPC Michigan later next month. Wayne State is hosting the finals.

►On the men's side at Wayne State, redshirt senior Grant Haefner (Bloomfield Hills) qualified as an individual for the Division II NCAAs in Kansas City, Missouri.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984