After finishing eighth out of nine teams at last year’s Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Championship, the Loyola men’s golf team knows it needs to lower its scores across the board to move up the leaderboard.
Head coach Erik Hoops said he believes the team will be more competitive within conference after recent disappointing seasons.
“I’m really excited to get started,” Hoops said. “I think these guys put in a lot of work over the offseason to get themselves ready to play this season, and I think we’re ready to get this ship moving forward.”
Sophomore Devin Johnson elaborated on the past struggles. Last year, Johnson missed the entire fall season due to a stress fracture in his wrist, but he said he’s fully healthy and expects to contribute this upcoming season.
“Last year, we did have a rough finish but it was still our best finish in the last couple years … so that was a pretty big improvement just from years past,” Johnson said. “I’m essentially fully healthy. With the injury that happened, I don’t think it’s ever going to be 100 percent, but I think I’m as close to 100 percent as it’s going to get.”
Player improvement is the name of the game this season, according to Hoops. The team only lost one senior, Kenny Mleko. Hoops said he believes the eight returning members improved over the offseason and the addition of first-year Nate Vance gives the team another solid piece.
“He is just an uber competitor,” Hoops said. “He’s going to add a competitive piece, that [is] one more player that’s going to make it that much more difficult to get into the lineup.”
Vance is coming in as a raw talent, according to Hoops. He managed to win his state golf tournament his senior year of high school without taking swing lessons growing up.
Hoops also raved about Vance’s ability to deliver under pressure. After he landed in a four-way tie after 18 holes at the Iowa High School Athletic Association Championships last year, Vance made an eagle putt on a playoff hole secure a victory.
Vance joins a strong returning core led by junior Justin LaFrance. Hoops wants him to assume more of a leadership role this season, according to LaFrance. Although Hoops didn’t appoint captains, he acknowledged LaFrance has become one of the natural team leaders.
“Natural leaders will just kind of stick out. Some lead vocally, and some just lead by example,” Hoops said. “Justin, the past couple years, has led by example, not really saying much. But this year I think he’s starting to be a little more vocal and starting to push people more.”
LaFrance is a junior, and he’s been in the starting lineup his entire time at Loyola. This gives him more experience than most players on the team. LaFrance said he recognizes his experience and leadership need to extend beyond the course for the team to reach its true potential.
“I need to make sure I really do my job by leading by example and getting these guys on top of their school work, their golf, their workouts, everything,” LaFrance said. “So I’m definitely a leader on the team now.”
In just one week of practice, Hoops said he noticed an overall improvement from the team. He said he believes it’ll be harder than ever for players to break into the starting lineup which will lead to more competitive tournament play in the season. Five players are chosen for the starting lineup each match. Only the top four scores are initially counted, the fifth scores are used if a tie occurs.
“As a coach you can tell in practice when your team is just a little more talented,” Hoops said. “You can tell that it’s going to be that much harder for people to break into the lineup because everybody raised their level over the last three months.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to open their fall season with the Crusader Collegiate, a tournament hosted by Valparaiso University Sept. 17-18.