The Loyola men’s golf team is preparing for its last Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Championship April 24-26. Head coach Erik Hoops said his team’s goal is to win the MVC Championship again to transition into the Atlantic 10 (A-10) with confidence.
Last season, Loyola won the MVC Championship with a tally of 895 — powered by current graduate student Devin Johnson’s 54-hole score of 216 that earned him first place. Now Loyola looks to defend its title and will count on a group of experienced golfers that can deal with high expectations.
Hoops said his team can win another conference title if his golfers trust their skills, adding that his players have excelled at reaching the green this season. The Ramblers’ experienced roster includes a red-shirt senior and four graduate students who, according to Hoops, will be crucial for success.
“I think we’ve had a great ball striking team, guys can show that they can shoot low numbers when they get in the right position and have their games working the right way,” Hoops said. “We have a very balanced lineup without a lot of weaknesses in their games, so we have to game plan and execute.”
Hoops said his players are capable of facing the pressure that comes with defending a conference title, and that his team has a boost of confidence after last season’s championship.
While this MVC Championship marks the last for Loyola, Hoops said his team is approaching the conference championship like any other weekend, and that his golfers have focused on improving their skills weeks in advance. Hoops said he told his players to focus on academics the week before the MVC Championship and then concentrate on golf.
“We approach it in the weeks leading up to it,” Hoops said. “We have to get outside and work on stuff as much as we can. Once we get to the tournament it’s business as normal.”
Hoops said his golfers must strengthen their scoring club skills — including wedges, irons and putters — to finish rounds strong. He said his players haven’t had the chance to improve their play while training inside due to the poor weather, as scoring club training often occurs outside.
Johnson leads the Ramblers with experience and skill, excelling this season with a team-best 72.6 stroke average. While Johnson didn’t compete at the Boilermaker Invitational April 9-10 — an injury precaution to stay healthy for the MVC Championship — Hoops said Johnson has a chance to win an individual title and his effort could lift the team to another conference championship, Hoops said.
“We didn’t want to do too much and ruin his chances at the MVC Championship by pushing too hard two weeks in a row,” Hoops said. “He’s going to be in a great spot and have another opportunity to win an individual crown. If he can win an individual crown, that just helps us even more as a team.”
Johnson said his ball-striking skills have helped him succeed this season, and that reaching the putting green with his iron clubs has allowed him to avoid high scores.
Ahead of the conference tournament, Johnson said he plans to work on his distance shots and short game.
Junior Timmy Crawford falls just below Johnson’s average with a 73.4 stroke average this season — while his round of 66 at the Earl Yestingsmeier Invitational Sept. 17-18 is the lowest round score for a Rambler this season. Hoops said Crawford trains the hardest out of anyone on the team, and that he has the talent needed to succeed at the MVC Championship.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever had,” Hoops said. “He has all the talents in the world to succeed at that level. I’m excited for him to have another good week.”
Junior communications major Zach Walsh also contributes low scores to Hoops’ team, averaging 75 strokes this season. Walsh recently led Loyola’s effort at the Boilermaker Invitational, contributing a score of 220 that earned him a share of 22nd place.
Walsh said he was able to shoot well due to his strong mental game, helping him endure the cold weather and score low.
“I feel like I can play well in those conditions because one of the strong suits of my play is my mental game,” Walsh said. “Golf is a marathon, not a sprint. In those cold conditions, you have to stay level-headed and positive out there, that’s what I did, and it was fun.”
Walsh said competing at the Boilermaker Invitational helped him keep a positive mindset after playing poorly at the Redhawk Invitational April 4-5, posting a round score of 82 while placing 111th. With only a few days of rest between the tournaments, Walsh said he blocked out negative thoughts to play better.
Walsh said the team is excited and ready to take on conference rivals one last time at the MVC Championship. He said he wants to win a conference title for the team’s graduating players, but that he appreciates the memories he’s created with his teammates more than anything.
“As a team we are excited,” Walsh said. “I’m excited for Devin and Ryan [Magee], it’s their last year here. Bringing home a title would be awesome but the memories I’ve had with those guys and our whole team have been pretty cool.”
The Loyola men’s golf team is set to tee off again at the MVC Championship April 24-26 in Paducah, Kentucky. Live scores can be viewed on the Loyola Athletics website during and after the tournament.