Wildcats try to follow Donald’s lead at Kepler

Bernard Schwartz

At last weekend’s Ford U.S. Collegiate Championships, freshman Tom Johnson knew that his poor play had done nothing to attract the ESPN cameras, which were down in Mexico taping the tournament for a delayed showing.

But Johnson also knew that teammate Luke Donald’s come-from-behind victory had done everything to attract the spotlight.

So while Johnson congratulated Donald – doing what anyone might after watching his teammate put the finishing touches on a win – and he also tried to make himself noticed.

“I yelled real loud,” Johnson said.

He yelled, thinking it would be cool to hear his voice on ESPN this weekend when Donald’s 10th collegiate victory is televised.

The Ford Championships will be shown this weekend – Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. – but none of the Wildcats will be watching. Instead, NU will be playing in the Kepler Intercollegiate, a less competitive and lower-profile tournament than the Ford Championships, but an event every bit as important for a team seeking the kind of breakthrough Donald achieved last weekend.

“We want to get back in the winner’s circle,” sophomore Scott Harrington said. “There’s nothing like the feeling of winning, no matter who we’re playing.”

And the Cats have felt it before at the Kepler, where they won the team title in both 1999 and 2000.

The Kepler has been good to NU in the past. With its mediocre field of Big Ten and other Midwestern teams, the tournament offers the Cats the chance prove that they’re still the best in the region.

“We haven’t really established ourselves in these national events,” Harrington said. “We need to assert ourselves this weekend. We want to be the favorites going into Big Tens.”

With the Big Ten championships less than a month away, NU has just two tournaments to regain its confidence.

But in the meantime, while they wait for the confidence to come, the Cats need a good finish at the Kepler to shore up their place in the Midwest District, a ranking that determines what teams make it to the NCAA Regional tournament.

Currently, NU is second only to Minnesota in the district, which sends the top five teams to the Regional, but it still can’t afford to falter.

“The reality is, we need to secure this bid,” coach Pat Goss said. “Because we don’t play too many tournaments at the district level, there’s an emphasis on competing.”

While NU is the favorite this as it – and always is when the field comprises area teams – the team has done little this spring to earn that distinction, one built on a foundation of past success that could crumble if it fails to send the strong statement it’s used to sending to the rest of the Big Ten.

“We don’t play too many conference matches,” Donald said. “So the ones we do play, we have to step up and play well.

“We have more talent than any of the other teams. If we play to our talent, we should win.”

But, with the exception of Donald, the Cats haven’t been playing up to their potential. At the Ford Championships, NU finished 11th in a field of 12, and two of its golfers – Harrington and senior David Shaffer – placed second-to-last and last.

The Cats may be the favorites at the Kepler, but they don’t feel like it.

“I know it’s still bothering a lot of the guys that they’re not playing well,” Donald said. “It might be affecting their confidence.”

The Kepler is held at Ohio State’s Scarlet Course, one of the more treacherous layouts in Big Ten country. Long and narrow, the Scarlet favors a strong ball-striking team – a characterization NU often claims for itself.

NU would have been the only top 25 team in the Kepler, but its poor performance at the Ford Championships dropped the team from No. 20 to No. 26, and No. 23 Minnesota isn’t playing.

Akron, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kent State, Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ball State, Purdue, Bowling Green, Toledo and Wisconsin round out the rest of the field.