Wildcats banking on frosh in clutch

At the Kepler Intercollegiate two weeks ago, the Northwestern men’s golf team did something it hadn’t done in a long time.

It contended.

The Wildcats finished second to host Ohio State, notching their best tournament performance since last fall.

And at the very same Kepler, senior Luke Donald did something he’s grown accustomed to doing.

He won.

Donald ran away from the rest of the field, capturing his second consecutive victory – and the 11th of his college career – by seven strokes.

Both Donald and his teammates enter this week’s Fossum Invitational, held in East Lansing, Mich., with confidence soaring. Led by Donald, NU sends the same lineup to the Fossum that it did to the Kepler – to face virtually the same field of teams.

With one exception. The Fossum also has Minnesota, the Cats’ fiercest conference rival.

“It’s good one week before the Big Tens to be playing Minnesota,” Donald said. “We need to play them. It’s important that we play them.”

The field is composed of nine Big Ten teams, including NU, which will duke it out in the two-day, 54-hole tournament.

One week before Big Tens, the NU lineup is as confident as ever and as young as ever, with three freshmen making the trip to the Fossum.

Freshman Tom Johnson has been the No. 2 man behind Donald all year, but classmates T.C. Ford and Casey Strunk had to work their way into the lineup for the Kepler.

And they have stayed, beating out sophomore Scott Harrington and senior David Shaffer in a four-day qualifier at Conway Farms, the Cats’ home course.

“It is quite a young team, but it is a team full of talent,” Donald said. “I think we’ll do well this week.”

Where Donald was cautiously optimistic, his freshman teammates were anything but, even dismissing Minnesota.

“We’re gonna wax ’em,” said Johnson, who fired a 66 last week in practice. “They’re going down. I think they beat us in Puerto Rico, but that was a fluke.”

Added Ford: “Everybody keeps talking about the future. But we’re talking about right now.”

A lineup of super-charged freshmen is something new for the Cats, a team that last year was made up of Donald and a slew of weathered seniors, including Jess Daley, the medalist at last year’s Fossum.

But the enthusiasm seems to be working. At the Kepler, NU missed a victory by only one stroke.

And this week the Cats are looking to continue improving as the postseason draws near.

“I don’t know if it’s important that we make a statement to other teams,” NU coach Pat Goss said. “But I know it’s important that we continue to show progress for our work.”

This week, progress will mean little to NU, unless the team breaks through for its first win of the spring. The field of 13 teams is one the Cats are supposed to beat – the same field of Big Ten teams they dominated by 33 strokes at last year’s conference tournament.

And while the triumvirate of Johnson, Strunk and Ford may not have experienced the domination firsthand, it’s well aware of NU’s storied past and eager to add its own chapters soon.

“Everybody’s pumped,” Strunk said. “We’re excited about the chemistry of this week’s team.”