By BUDDY HUGHES firstname.lastname@example.org
Two teams. Two NAIA titles within reach. That's the task in front of College of Coastal Georgia's men's tennis and men's golf teams this week in Mobile, Ala., and Silvis, Ill., as both teams begin play today in their respective NAIA tournaments.
The golf team is making its fourth-straight appearance at the NAIA Championship and is looking to reclaim its national title. Mike Cook's team was back-to-back champions in 2014 and 2015 but had their dreams of a three-peat dashed by Oklahoma City last year.
This is the third-straight NAIA Championship bid for the men's tennis team.
It is the first bid with new coach Zack Rogers at the helm of the Mariners' program.
The season didn't get off to the best of starts for the Coastal men's tennis team. The Mariners, playing against some tough competition, started the season 1-5.
Rogers chalked up the early struggles to unfamiliarity. With three new players inserted into the lineup, finding the right combinations for doubles proved to be a challenge early.
"Early on, we just didn't have any chemistry as far as doubles," Rogers said. "It took us five or six matches to really figure out our doubles pairings and really get an idea on where everybody needs to be in the lineup."
If the latter part of the season is any indication, the Mariners found the right combinations. Coastal won 12 straight matches after its rocky start — they didn't lose until the semifinals of the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament.
"We had a really good run," Rogers said. "We had 12 wins in a row, then Rhan (Burton), a senior and one of our best players, hurt his ankle against Brewton-Parker. All in all, I think we're in pretty good shape. Rhan is almost back to 100 percent."
Coastal enters the tournament as the 13th seed and will face No. 20 seed Asbury University out of Kentucky. The two teams are slated to play at 8:30 a.m. today at the Mobile Tennis Center.
"We've got a pretty good draw," Rogers said. "Asbury is going to be a tough, first-round match. We're ranked seven spots higher than them but if you look at the computer rankings, they're (one spot behind us)."
A win sets up a match against No. 4 seed Northwestern Ohio, which earned a bye into the second round.
"I feel like Northwestern Ohio is a very, very good team, but a team I feel like we matchup well with," Rogers said. "There's an opening for us to make a run to the semifinals, but we're definitely going to have to play great tennis."
There is some good news for the Mariner golf team. TPC Deere Run, the site of the NAIA Championship, has been kind to golfers from the Golden Isles. The course is the home of the PGA Tour's John Deere Classic, which Isles pros Zach Johnson, Jonathan Byrd and Brian Harman have all won.
Now the Mariners will look to leave their Isles stamp on the course.
"It's a great track, very fair," Cook said of the course. "The conditions can be tough because you never know about the weather here in the upper midwest. We're looking forward to the challenge. Many of our guys have played here before, so it's not like we're coming up here blind. I think it helps that we've seen it."
Coastal finished in 11th at last year's championship, 38 shots behind champion Oklahoma City. To stay in contention this year, Cook said the Mariners need to be in the 290s every day. Of course, that could change given the conditions.
"Par is 71 but it plays like a par 72," Cook said. "There were only a few rounds that were below par last year. If it's a windy day, I think 300 is a good score."
To get ready for the tournament, the Mariners held a four-day tournament at Sea Island Golf Club, which they treated as a dress rehearsal for the championship.
Now, they're ready to tee it up.
"I feel like we're ready," Cook said. "They're bored of sitting around. They're ready to play."
The Mariners tee off at 9:40 a.m. with Southeastern University and Wayland Baptist. Eamon Owen, Taylor Guilbeau, Lauri Hacklin, Seth Sanders and Brunswick native Paxton Shuman will tee it up for Coastal with the top four scores going to the team's total.
Hacklin picked up some prestigious hardware before the tournament. Last week, the junior from Finland was named the SSAC Men's Golf Scholar Athlete of the Year. Hacklin has a stroke average of 74.37 this season to go with a 3.52 grade-point average.
Pictured is CCGA senior, Josh Banks.