By BENJAMIN WOLK The Brunswick NewsCoastal Georgia men's golf team is on the verge of a dynasty.
The Mariners have gained clout in the NAIA golf world for their back-to-back national championships. They did it two years ago for the program's first. They coasted again last season with a team that picked up eight wins and the national title, thanks to a team made up exclusively of All-Americans.
Coastal Georgia, still No. 1 in a few national polls, will once again attempt to defeat the nation's best NAIA golf teams and claim its third consecutive national crown when the Mariners travel to Silva, Ill., for the tournament's first round next Tuesday. The Mariners have the chance to become the first three-straight winner since Oklahoma City University in 2004.
"If we do it, you can almost call it a dynasty, seriously, just because of how (head coach Mike) Cook has brought this program together from junior college up," Harrison Stafford said. "It is really incredible when you look at it like that."
Coastal Georgia's quick rise to the top began with the Mariners' leap up to the NAIA realm. Once there, the Mariners immediately entered as a competitive force, but it wasn't until 2014 that the rest of the nation began to realize the stacked program Cook was building in Brunswick. Since grasping the national trophy, the Mariners haven't let go.
Even at times this fall, Cook had his doubts about the 2016 squad, which lost four of the All-Americans from a season ago. The Mariners stumbled in the early going, falling in their home invitational. But they've regained their footing and have won five tournaments — the same number of wins as the first title run.
"At the beginning, I really felt like this was going to be a good team. We should've been a good team," Cook said. "We didn't play well at our home invitational. We played really well in our second tournament, but didn't win, but that kinda proved my point. I knew we could do that."
Since that slow start to the fall season, Coastal Georgia has been on tear.
The Mariners have won five tournaments, and they've done it with a balanced lineup. For the first time Cook can remember, Coastal Georgia has utilized eight or nine players throughout the season, as opposed to the typical five players from start to finish. It's a testament to the depth of the squad and the championship culture developing in Coastal Georgia's golf program.
Despite the success, Cook isn't looking at this year's team as one trying to build on the legacy of past teams with a third-straight title.
"I hadn't really thought so much about it. It's another year, for one thing. Last year was last year. It's a different team," Cook said. "We have some new faces."
Those new faces have followed a similar path to the old ones, however. They won a handful of tournaments in the regular season, jumped to No. 1 in the NAIA poll and, of course, fell in the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament, which has become a bizarre trend during the previous nationals victories.
With the loss in the last tournament at conference, it could've been a deterrent to the team's growing confidence, but the Mariners revel in the chance to lean on the results from previous teams with Stafford noting that "it can still be done."
"If I had to choose between nationals and conference, I'd choose nationals every time. I'm not complaining, but it is weird," senior Trevor Smith said.
Aside from Smith, nobody in the Coastal Georgia lineup has participated at the national tournament for the Mariners.
That could be cause for concern, but the other four golfers in the nationals lineup — Dillon Board, Seth Sanders, Stafford and Eamon Owen — have played in a number of talent-rich fields this season, which should carry over to the national tournament next week. Cook will rely on his one experienced leader to pave the way for the rest of the group.
"If you're not feeling any nerves, something's wrong. It's good to have that belly churning when you hit that first tee shot," Cook said. "Trevor is going to be a big part of helping them get their feet wet."
The Mariners have had an extended break since the conference tournament in April. A few players attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open, and Coastal Georgia will try to keep this week as competitive as possible to get those juices flowing again. The Mariners will visit Pooler to watch the women finish up their title attempt, which Cook hopes makes the younger group comfortable with the NAIA's operation at national events.
"That will help give us an idea of how it's run. It's the same NAIA organization running that tournament. That's going to be good to watch the women play," Cook said.