Young Blue Raider men’s golf team looks to build off NCAA Regional bid in 2017-18 season

Photo by Brent Beerends / MT Athletic Communications

After a regional appearance in the 2017 NCAA Men’s Golf Championships, the Middle Tennessee men’s golf team can learn from their 2016-17 season and continue their momentum into the 2017-18 campaign.

The Blue Raiders hosted their first NCAA Regional Tournament match at The Grove Club in Murfreesboro, finishing in a tie with the Troy Trojans for sixth place out of 13 schools.

Middle Tennessee finished in the top 10 in 11 of their 12 tournaments from the past season, including a win in the season opener at the Ocean Course Invitational and a fourth-place finish in the Conference USA tournament. The Blue Raiders also had one runner-up finish at the Lamkin Grips Classic.

MTSU is only losing three players and will have plenty of youth on the team with one freshman, five sophomores, three juniors and one senior.

With the youth uprising, the Raiders should have a shot to contend for another conference title and look to move even further than just a regional bid in the 2017-18 season.

“The guys know what they need to work on this offseason,”said head coach Brennan Webb.  “I’m looking forward to them getting out and playing as many tournaments as possible this summer so that they’re fresh when they get back here in August.”

Who will step up to fill the void left by Joey Savoie?

The Raiders were led by senior Joey Savoie in 2016. Savoie earned Ping all-region honors with a 71 stroke average for the year. The First-Team All-Conference USA recipient’s consistency on the golf course will be missed dearly by the Blue Raiders, as he shot 13 rounds of par or better golf last season. This was highlighted by a third-place finish at the Mason Rudolph Championships, where he finished the weekend at eight-under par.

The Raiders return three of their top four performers from last season in rising sophomores Ilari Saulo and Chip Thomas along with junior Marcus Byrd. This group will look to combine their efforts to fill the void left by Savoie.

The trio of Byrd, Thomas and Saulo combined for 41 rounds of par or better and eight top-ten finishes, while competing regularly in every tournament in the 2016-17 season.

Even with how well each player performed last season, Webb knows that replacing Savoie will be no easy task.

“(Joey) was a great player,” Webb said. “He had the second lowest scoring average in school history and was a great leader, but I look for our other four guys in the starting lineup to step up and get better this year. I also look for Alessandro Noseda and Tyler Johnson to step up and have good years. Noseda just won the Swiss national tournament by shooting 15-under par and Tyler red-shirted last year and is extremely talented.”

Expect great things from Ilari Saulo after Freshman of the Year honor

After winning C-USA’s Freshman of the Year Award and earning All-C-USA Freshman Team honors in 2016-17, Ilari Saulo looks to duplicate his success as a sophomore.

Arguments could be made that the Finland native was Middle Tennessee’s best player this past year, as he played a big part in helping the Raiders get to the College Grove Regional.

In the fall, Saulo had three top 10 finishes in the four events he participated in, and shot a 13-under par at the Quail Valley Collegiate Invitational. This 54-hole score tied for the best in school history.

Saulo slumped a bit during the spring, but still has a lot of potential to get better.

As a freshman, Saulo finished in the top-five twice and the top-ten three times and was the only Blue Raider to be atop the individual scoreboard at the end of a tournament last season. Saulo’s 72.9 average is second only to Byrd amongst returning players on the team.

Webb knows that Saulo struggled, but is confident is his ability to be a major player on the team.

“(Ilari) struggled a bit in the spring, but I expect him, Chip (Thomas) and Marcus (Byrd) to be in the running for C-USA player of the year,” Webb said. “Ilari has a tremendous amount of skill, so he’s a guy that will be leading us this year.”

Byrd and Kim to guide Middle’s young group through the season

The two veteran players that will be tasked with guiding Middle Tennessee through the year will be rising junior Marcus Byrd and lone senior Hoyeong Kim.

Byrd was the team’s top performer in the NCAA Regionals, finishing one-under par for the tournament for an eighth-place finish. The Atlanta native’s 72.8 stroke average is the best returning average on the team and his four top-ten finishes from last season lead the team as well.

Kim’s success could quite possibly determine how far the Raiders can go in 2017-18.  The South Korean native participated in six events last season and although he failed to score in the top ten of any of them, he finished with five rounds of even par or better golf. He brings valuable experience to the table that can be used for the younger players, as he has participated in at least six tournaments in each of his first three seasons with Middle Tennessee.

With the departure of Savoie, Webb knows that it’s up to his veterans to lead the younger players to success.

“As a coach, you can only do so much,” Webb said. “To be a team that competes for national championships, leadership has to come from the players. You can lead them to water, but they are the ones that have to drink from it.”

Follow Sports Reporter Anthony Fiorella (@A_Fiorella74) for more coverage.  

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To contact Sports Editor Rusty Ellis, email sports@mtsusidelines.com

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