By SCOTT JACKSON
Courier sports writer
---- — OTTUMWA — When it was first announced that the NJCAA Division I National Golf Championship would be decided in southeastern Iowa, Indian Hills head coach Mike Hagen saw it as a great opportunity.
Sure, the obvious opportunity that will hopefully present itself this upcoming May is for the Warrior golfers to win the program’s fourth national championship just 90 minutes away from home. That opportunity could present a very significant ‘home course’ advantage to IHCC this upcoming spring.
But the other opportunity that presented itself to Hagen was an opportunity to give some of Indian Hills’ fellow national championship contenders to the Warriors actual home course over the weekend directly ahead of the annual national preview tournament. That ultimately led to perhaps the most star-studded tournament that Indian Hills has ever hosted.
“That’s the reason we got them,” Hagen said about booking teams like second-ranked Odessa and fourth-ranked McLennan, both from Texas, to the Community First Credit Union Invite. “ If you’re going to travel halfway across the country to play, we can work out our schedule.”
The eighth-ranked Warriors have never lost on the home turf of the Ottumwa Country Club. Considering talent like national tournament qualifiers McLennan, Odessa and Iowa Western made the trip Saturday to IHCC’s course, keeping that unbeaten home record intact was going to be very difficult.
Instead, the Warriors took the opportunity over the weekend to finish the fall season proving they could compete with the nation’s best despite have several new faces leading the charge. An opening-round 289 gave IHCC enough of a cushion to edge out a pair of Texas challengers as a two-round 591 beat out McLennan and Odessa by five shots as the Warriors earned its toughest Community First Credit Union Invite to date.
“It’s been a lot of fun this weekend,” Hagen said. “We had some of the great teams from around the nation coming in. We’ve never had a field like that ever at that tournament. To have those teams in there and to win that tournament is really impressive.”
The fun continued for the Warriors on Monday as IHCC joined Odessa, McLennan and New Mexico as well as regional rival Iowa Western in making the trip southeast down Highway 34 to Burlington for the NJCAA Division I National Preview Tournament. With more of the best NJCAA Division I teams in the field, Indian Hills didn’t blink as the Warriors took a slim one-shot lead after the first of three rounds with a 300 at the tough Spirit Hollow course over top-ranked Central Alabama, the team that dethroned IHCC last year at the national tournament.
“We’ve played a lot of golf over the last eight days, but we kept getting better all fall,” Hagen said. “We had some of that national talent at our course and we’re still playing well against more national talent here in Burlington.”
The tough day of play at Burlington forced the second round to be stopped midway through due to darkness. Teams will return to the course today at 8 a.m. to finish the second round with the final 18 holes of the tournament being played immediately afterwards.
For Hagen, however, it’s just part of busy schedule that has seen the young Indian Hills’ golf team thrive at the end of the fall season. The Warriors will be looking today for a third straight win dating back to the Kirkwood Invitational title earned just eight days ago.
“That’s why I set the schedule up like that,” Hagen said. I knew we had a chance to play a shorter week starting with Kirkwood and I knew the guys could handle it. It’s worked out pretty well.”
It worked out very well on Saturday for Josh Smith, an IHCC freshman that was playing within the top five of the Warriors team at Kirkwood. Playing as an individual instead on Saturday in Ottumwa, Smith thrived in his first home tournament as a Warrior with a three-under 141 two-round total to earn the individual medalist honor by two shots over McLennan’s Hunter Shattuck.
“The fact that Josh could play that well and not be one of our top five scores that we counted shows you just how tough it is within our team,” Hagen said.
Case in point – today’s opening round at the National Preview Tournament. George Trujillo and Harrison Moore, two more of IHCC’s new faces, are joining Shattuck and Central Alabama’s Tim Walker in a four-person battle for the individual lead one round into the tournament.
Trujillo and Walker are tied at even par, one shot ahead of Moore and Shattuck. Seeing so many different young players starting to step up to put themselves atop the leaderboard is exactly what Hagen was hoping to see as the fall season rolled along.
“We’re young, but we’re very talented,” Hagen said. “I think we are seeing now how deep our team really is. It doesn’t seem to matter where we are, we seem like we get somebody new each week leading us.”
Leading IHCC to the top team round of 289 on Saturday was another freshman, Jakob Garstecki, who joined other Warrior newcomers like Sam Sloman and Greg Stanek in earning top-ten individual finishes at the Community Credit Union Invite. Garstecki’s opening-round 70 was followed immediately by a 71 that was, to say the least, a gutsy and well-earned score.
“Jakob’s been fighting tendinitis all year,” Hagen said. “I didn’t know if he could finish that second round. That’s a lot better finish then people realize.”
Finishing strong, meanwhile, is exactly what the eighth-ranked Warriors hope to do today by finishing off its third straight win on the course that will be the home of this spring’s national tournament. For Hagen, the run to return to Spirit Hollow for next May’s national tourney begins today in a lot of ways.
“I look at it as important as any time of the year. It’s not just the fall season. This is the time you can start to determine your pecking order and build some momentum going into the spring,” Hagen said. “You enter every tournament to win it. I want to win this tournament and the guys want to win it. We could be six strokes from a perfect fall with several new guys. It’s important to us to finish the fall strong heading into the spring.”
For several of the Warriors national championship challengers, Saturday’s trip to Ottumwa was the first chance to experience a course and playing conditions that were much different than some of the conditions and courses the southern squads are used to.
“It was a lot different golf for those guys. They are so used to playing tighter golf courses and they are used to different elements,” Hagen said. “They had a lot fun with it.”
That was, however, until the final scores came in.
“This was the first time they’ve been here (to Ottumwa). They may never come back after this,” Hagen joked.
To follow Scott Jackson's Twitter feed, go to @stjack423.
COMMUNITY FIRST CREDIT UNION INVITATIONAL
At Ottumwa Country Club
Team scoring — 1. Indian Hills 289-302-591, T2. McLennan 297-299-596, T2. Odessa 296-300-596, 4. Iowa Western 299-310-609, 5. New Mexico 308-316-624, 6. Kirkwood 312-313-625, 7. Illinois Central 325-321-646.
Medalist — Josh Smith (IHCC) 69-72-141.
Runner-up — Hunter Shattuck (McLennan) 72-71-143.
IHCC individuals — 1. Smith 69-72-141, T3. Harrison Moore 72-72-144, T3. Sam Sloman 73-71-144, T7. Greg Stanek 79-69-148, T7. Jakob Garstecki 70-78-148, T13. Colin Pearson 73-77-150, T13. George Trujillo 75-75-150, 21. Isaac Vandersee 79-75-154, T22. Luke Monson 74-81-155.
NJCAA DIVISION I NATIONAL TOURNAMENT PREVIEW TOURNAMENT
After First Round (second round suspended due to darkness)
At Spirit Hollow, Burlington
Team scoring — 1. Indian Hills 300, 2. McLennan 301, 3. Central Alabama 306, 5. Odessa 308, 6, Dodge City 313, T7. Iowa Western 314, T7. Wallace State 314, 9. Johnson County 323, 10. Wallace State 328, 11. Hutchinson 331, 12. Garden City 341.
Co-Leaders — George Trujillo (IHCC) and Tim Walker (Central Alabama) 72.
Third Place — Harrison Moore (IHCC) and Hunter Shattuck (McLennan) 73.
IHCC individuals — Trujillo 72, Moore 73, Colin Pearson 76, Sam Sloman 79, Jakob Garstecki 85.
Other IHCC individuals — Luke Monson 74, Josh Smith 77, Greg Stanek 78, Isaac Vandersee 88.