PERKINSTON — A year ago just across the state line, Mississippi Gulf Coast won its first team national championship in golf.
This week, the No. 2 Bulldogs try to climb that summit again at the NJCAA Division II Men's Golf Championship at Swan Lake Golf Resort in Plymouth, Ind. The 72-hole event starts Tuesday. They're not shy about their chances, and they're embracing all that comes along with those lofty goals.
"That's going to be fun," Brice Wilkinson said. "I think we have a better chance than anyone to win it. This team is a lot deeper than last year's. The top five we have going, I don't think there's a better top five in the country. Anything less than a win is going to be a disappointment."
Gulf Coast finished 2-under at Glenlakes Golf Club in Foley, Ala., last year to edge MACJC rival Meridian by one shot in an extraordinarily close championship. Four teams finished within four shots of the Bulldogs.
Wilkinson, a sophomore from Madison Central, leads the five-man squad that includes Jon Hopkins (Fr., Hockerill Anglo-European College/Bishop's Stortford, England), Carter Nicholson (So., Pearl River Central/Carriere), Jake Crosson (Fr., New Hope/Columbus) and Miles Jackson (So., Biloxi/Biloxi).
"It's a team effort," Bulldogs coach Tommy Snell said. "No one player can win it for you. I've always said, your 3, 4, 5 guys are just as important as 1 and 2. They have to contribute and play well. That's why I'm on them every day to keep working."
Case in point is Nicholson. Playing as the No. 5 golfer, he shot 69-72 the final 36 holes last year to help the Bulldogs come back from nine down after two rounds. He brings that experience to Indiana, where the course is about 30 minutes from South Bend and about two hours from Chicago. Gulf Coast finished fourth on the course in 2016, and the Bulldogs have finished sixth, third, third, fourth, second and first in national championships since 2013.
"The national championship really takes four solid days," Wilkinson said. "Every one of us is going to have to play their top, top game to have a chance. I feel like we've shown ourselves throughout the year."
Gulf Coast won all seven events against MACJC competition, including the District D championship, and never finished worse than third in a tournament. The Bulldogs won three tournaments for the first time in school history: the Wallace State Fall Invitational, the Carey Collegiate Classic and the Coastal Alabama Invitational.
They beat Central Alabama, which just won the NJCAA Division I title, in the Wallace State and Coastal Alabama events and beat a field of four-year schools in Hattiesburg.
"We've had an incredible year, but even having that, you have to have a little bit of luck in the national championships," Snell said. "Things have to fall your way, and you need a good draw with the weather."
Wilkinson will finish the most decorated career in Gulf Coast history this week. He is a finalist for the NJCAA Division II Jack Nicklaus Award, given to the nation's top golfer. He won the Phil Mickelson Award last year as the top freshman in the country and the Hubert Tucker Award for lowest scoring average in the MACJC.
"He strikes the ball extremely well," Snell said. "He hits the ball solid every time. He's really turned the corner with his putting. He's become a great putter. That's really what kind of reaching that next level. He was always a good putter, but now he's a great putter. More than anything, what separates him is his ball-striking. That's what great players do."
Wilkinson credits some simple changes to his putting stroke, trying to keep things simple. He said putting has changed from being his enemy to a trusted friend now.
The Bulldogs were in their first practice round Sunday, with another scheduled for Monday before the pre-tournament banquet. It will be some of the last days together for the squad.
"Every year is different," Wilkinson said. "It takes a little while to get know each other. This group of guys is one of the closest teams I've been a part of. As dedicated as we are to golf, I think we're all playing for something we really want."
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