The overcast skies and winter-beaten grass, staging its own rally from the elements, didn't dampen Matt Ball's optimism as he tried to forecast the upcoming spring golf season. With his players, engaged in short-game target practice nearby, and VCU's new indoor practice facility serving as a backdrop, he laid out the road to another Colonial Athletic Association championship in practical, simple language.
The Rams have won eight CAA Championships, more than any other league school. Ball has directed VCU to the last four of those, including a win in 2009, as well as an at-large bid to the NCAA Regional round in 2010, so who's going to argue with him?
After four years of championship contenders, led by 2009 CAA Player of the Year Lanto Griffin, Ball is trying to mold a youthful squad in 2011. Four new players line the roster. Of the four returning upperclassmen, only junior Chase Sargent and senior Mark Jargren started more than 10 tournaments in a season prior to this year.
Despite their relative inexperience, there's plenty of talent available. Matt Ball Jr. (pictured, top right), a freshman, posted the team's top scoring average (72.93) in five fall tournaments. Sargent, VCU's longest hitter, emerged as the Rams' No. 2 player, averaging 74.13 strokes in the fall. After a quiet freshman season, Sargent moved into VCU's starting lineup last season, and continues to progress, according to Ball.
"Chase has really made improvements. You can really see him hold bad rounds together more now. You can see his decision-making on the golf course is a lot better, which is important, because he's the one guy that hits it really far," Ball said. "He plays a little different game than most players and his decision-making is of the utmost importance, to not only help him make lower scores, but to keep him from making big numbers."
Jargren, after difficult 2009-10 season, appears to be nearing the form that earned him a starting spot in 2007-08 and 2008-09. Meanwhile, freshman Rocky Khara and junior Matt Smith, a junior college transfer, earned starting nods in the fall. Junior Davis Garner and senior Evan Boyer, who each logged nine rounds in the fall, also have a opportunity to win a starting role for this squad.
VCU played the 15th most difficult schedule in the country in the fall, a challenge for a young team. The Rams took some lumps along the way, but Ball believes the experience will be valuable down the road.
"In the fall, we played longer, wider courses, which probably didn't suit this particular team very well, but I think we'll have some better chances in the spring for courses to match up with our talent level a little bit better," Ball said.
Ball has more reasons for optimism. In October, he cut the ribbon on the William G. Reynolds Jr. Indoor Learning and Practice Center (Reynolds Center, for short) at First Tee of Richmond. The 1,000-square foot facility, which features putting greens, computerized hitting bays and more, meant the Rams wouldn't have to miss practice time during Richmond's unpredictable winter months, as they have in years past.
"We never had to miss a day. That's the nice part," Ball said. "Plus, we had better technology and mirrors and things that you can really, you know you're not going to play golf soon, so you can really make some technique changes. It was extremely important to get started and to really be able to spend time working on short wedge shots, which is what we predominantly did and some putting technique changes and such."
The Reynolds Center is part of a larger, program-wide enhancement plan to move VCU towards national prominence. Two years ago, the school purchased a Mercedes luxury van for team travel. It's also why Ball has had the confidence to beef up VCU's schedule.
"I've always thought that if you want to be the best, you've got to play the best," Ball said. "It's always been a process of building up the schedule and that helps you to recruit better players. They want to play against the best, so, I don't plan on trying to soften the schedule ever."
The battle-tested Rams head to the Seahawk Intercollegiate at Pinehurst No. 6 in Wilmington, N.C. Feb. 27-28 to kick off the spring. If all goes well, VCU could hoist another CAA trophy when it returns to Pinehurst for the conference championship April 22-24.