New GSW men's golf coach Darcy Donaldson had less than two weeks to prepare for the fall golf season when he arrived late last year, but now the Hurricanes have had time to adjust to their new leader going into the spring season, which begins today in Florida.
AMERICUS — When the Georgia Southwestern State men’s golf team achieved its first national ranking in school history a season ago — climbing all the way up to No. 1 in one Top 25 poll — it appeared that the Hurricanes were about to take the nation by storm.
One season later, however, the winds of change have swept through Americus, leaving the program under new leadership and with some fresh faces who will be expected to keep the trail blazing.
Darcy Donaldson is one of those fresh faces — and he’s the most important one of them all.
“I’ve definitely settled in more (during the break between the fall and spring seasons) after only having about 10-to-12 days to prepare when I got here,” said the Ontario, Canada, native Sunday after the team’s final practice round in preparation for today’s spring season opener — the Spring Kickoff Intercollegiate — in Fleming Island, Fla. “That was challenging, for sure, to have such little time to prepare. But we’ve worked hard in the weight room during the offseason, the guys are buying into what I’m trying to teach and I think we’re close to being where we want to be.”
Donaldson, a former college golf star and assistant coach at Concord University in West Virginia — where he helped build his last program into a national power both as a player and a coach — was hired last year to replace Andrew Danna, who is credited with turning GSW into a national power before leaving after last season to take the head coaching job at fellow Division II power Lynn University in South Florida.
During his four-year assistant coaching stint with the Mountain Lions, Donaldson helped lead the program to appearances in four straight NCAA Division II national tournaments. But the results for the Hurricanes during Donaldson’s first tour of duty as coach in the fall did not go like anyone planned. The Hurricanes, who were mopping the course with many of the teams in the Southeast just a season ago, failed to finish higher than fourth in any of their first eight tournaments in the fall.
Donaldson said Sunday that he’s spent hours agonizing over those performances from a few months back as he began preparing the team for the all-important spring season, which GSW hopes will end with a trip to the nationals after the program was upset in the regional round last year and fell well short of expectations.
“We just couldn’t put four solid scores together,” Donaldson lamented about the team’s fall-season struggles. “When (senior leaders) J.P. (Griffin) or Nate (Gahman) would play well, the other guys would struggle, or when J.P. or Nate struggled, the other guys played well. That’s just golf sometimes.
“But we took a lot of positives from that, and I think we learned a lot. How much we learned is something we’ll find out (today) when we take the course.”
GSW, which lost two of its Top 4 players to graduation this offseason (Craig Gibson and Chris Hall), will do battle with a dozen teams from Division II when it tees today at 9:15 a.m. Donaldson called Sunday’s final practice round “great” and that the Fleming Island course “was in very good shape.”
Leading the way today will be Glennville native Griffin, a former Pinewood Christian star, and Gahman, a former Lee County star and Herald Player of the Year. GSW’s No. 3 golfer will be junior college transfer Matt Whittaker (Alberta, Canada native; played two years at West Texas CC), followed by freshman Anders Olsson of Smyrna. Rounding out the Top 5 will be sophomore Andrew Ritchot, another Canadian transfer who played JUCO golf at Texas A&M International.
Griffin and Gahman helped GSW ascend to No. 1 in the golfstat.com rankings last year, while Whittaker played for a NJCAA national title in 2012 and Olsson and Ritchot have emerged as the team’s final top two players since the fall season ended.
“With my two guys (Whittaker and Ritchot) who came from Canada, they’re finding their groove now,” Donaldson said. “When they first came, they had never played on Bermuda grass, and when you’re chipping and putting, it’s a whole other game. It’s like playing tennis on hardcourts and having success, then trying to switch to clay. It’s tough, but they’ve had time to prepare on it, and they’re ready.”
Donaldson thinks Gahman may be the most prepared of any golfer.
“I’m being honest here ... Nate hits it better than any college golfer I’ve ever seen. He hits it like a (pro) tour player,” the coach said. “The only thing that holds him back is his putting. Putting is all about confidence between the ears, and Nate can hit great shots to get on the green, he just struggles to post low numbers once he does because he can’t putt sometimes. It’s frustrating for him, it’s frustrating to watch, but we’ve been working on keeping him calm and making sure he focuses. He’s shown a lot of improvement in that area.”
But will the Hurricanes improve their national standing from a year ago under their new guy?
Even Donaldson admits that remains to be seen.
“There’s pressure. Of course, there’s pressure. That’s part of coaching — you’re never really satisfied. What the last group did for the program — building it up, getting it recognition — is great. It put us on the map,” Donaldson said. “Now it’s my job to continue it and further it. Our goal is the national championship tournament. That’s where we want to be at the end of the season after they fell short last year. Like I said, we won’t be happy if we don’t make it that far.”
Donaldson and the Hurricanes won’t see former coach Danna and his Lynn team this week in Fleming Island — but they also won’t have to wait long for the first reunion.
“Not this time, but we will in a month when we play our next tournament in Valdosta,” Donaldson said. “Should be interesting.”