ORANGE CITY, Iowa – Coming through under intense pressure has been a trademark for the Northwestern College men’s golf team.
Coach Aaron Aberson’s talented squad did so again in the final round of the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament. Morningside had edged within a shot of the Red Raiders in the cumulative standings that stretch over four rounds in both the fall and spring.
Northwestern, though, turned in the low score of the day, shooting 5-over-par 289 at Woodland Hills Golf Club in Eagle, Nebraska, to win the championship by nine shots over Morningside.
It was the fourth consecutive GPAC title for Northwestern, which qualified for the 67th NAIA Men’s Golf Championship which begins Tuesday at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Illinois.
“That was an excellent Mustang team that we were able to hold off,” Aberson said. “Our two teams get to know each other quite well throughout the year and we traded blows all year long. We knew it was likely going to be close from start to finish.”
Three senior stalwarts have been part of all four GPAC championship teams and Aberson realizes that Justin Kraft, Evan Schuler and Colton Kooima will be hard to replace.
“The pure grit that they’ve shown when the pressure has been at its highest has been remarkable,” Aberson said. “If any of these guys were missing from the formula, there’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t have won any of these four GPAC championships.”
Kraft, a Lake View, Iowa, product, was named GPAC Player of the Year for the second time in his four-year career. He shot 1-under-par 71 in the final two rounds to win the individual title by four shots over Morningside’s Cody Holck.
Kraft also won the conference championship as a freshman in 2015.
“Evan, Colton and I have had unbelievable careers and when I came to Northwestern all I really wanted was a chance to make varsity, I didn’t realize the impact that maybe I would have or the class of 2018 would have," he said. "We really just focused on each day, we didn’t look at it as we want to win four conference championships, we looked at is how do we get better today.
“It’s been special because it feels like we’ve done it a different way every year. My freshman year we stormed back from seventh place. Sophomore and junior year we felt more like a team that could scrap it around and in bad weather we could beat everybody. Then this year we never thought of ourselves as a team that could beat a good ball striking team like Morningside on a calm day. This year we had good weather in every meet and were trailing Morningside but had guys manage to put up good scores.”
Aberson said he has never met a better competitor than Schuler.
“Even when his swing wasn’t at its best, he’d find a way to shoot a solid score to help the team,” Aberson said. “He’s always been a team first guy and that unselfishness has served us really well.”
We all know how well Kooima performed on the basketball court, earning Great Plains Athletic Conference player of the year honors. The Sioux Falls product has transferred that athletic talent to the golf course.
“His swing was always simple but his setup has really improved the last four years and that’s allowed him to hit any shot he wants,” Aberson said. “He has a way of keeping the team loose while still maintaining our focus on goals.”
Kooima did not play in the two fall qualifiers, but shot 69-68 in the last two rounds at Woodland Hills.
Junior Austin Reitz (Onawa, Iowa) continued his rapid improvement, tying with Kraft for team best honors with a 75.5 average.
“Like Justin, he handles constructive criticism well because he knows it’s meant to make him better and its’ fun to see how far he’s come in just three years,” Aberson said. “He went from a bottom end JV guy as a freshman to one of our top performers as a junior.”
Freshmen Isaac Knock and Jake Olsen and junior Zach Riddle were involved in a playoff for the last spot in the national tournament.
Northwestern posted its highest finish ever, 13th, in last year’s national tournament.
“I won’t go into details about our goals,” Kraft said. “But they’re definitely tob eat that 13th place finish we had last year. We need to play average to above average. We know the course and what the national tournament looks like at this point, so that’s the fun part.
“We’ve won four conference championships and we’re going to play in four national tournaments, so there’s no reason to not go out and enjoy this week.”