HANCEVILLE, ALA. – Wallace State freshman golfer Cooper Brown was so zeroed in on doing his part to bring a team national championship back to Hanceville last week at the NJCAA Division I national championships in Burlington, Iowa, that he wasn't concerned about any individual accolades.
"I didn't know until I was done with my final round (on Friday) that I had a chance to win a national championship," said Brown, who hails from Renfrew, Ontario, and was already in Canada on Monday preparing for his offseason work on the course. "I came off the final hole thinking how we had nothing to be disappointed in as a team because we played good golf on a difficult course. We were leaving as national runner-ups."
Brown's focus quickly shifted when he learned he was destined for a playoff to determine the 2014 NCJAA Division I individual national champion. Brown outlasted Midland (Texas) Community College's David Wicks in a one-hole playoff by sinking a 12-foot putt before Wicks' subsequent putt from the same distance fell short.
Brown left Iowa as the national championship low medalist, earning him the Arnold Palmer Award and recognition as a NJCAA All-American. A year after Aksel Olsen won the first NJCAA Division I individual national championship for Wallace State, Brown made sure to keep the impressive feat in the Lions' trophy case.
"It was a great feeling and a cool honor. I don't think it's sunk in all the way yet. I actually got a hug from coach (Dan) York and he doesn't offer up hugs too often. I guess that shows how big of a deal it was for me, for coach York and for the college," Brown said. "I still think it's going to take a little while to understand the magnitude of it."
Wallace State NJCAA Hall of Fame coach Dan York has had his share of future PGA professionals, future golf coaches and myriad of success stories to play for him during his 27 years with the Lions. He never coached an individual national champion until Olsen won it all in 2013.
York has now mentored back-to-back champions.
"It's amazing. It really is. We've had some great players come through here, and no one had ever been able to win it. The odds can't be in your favor to have it happen two years in a row, but we have. It's just a tremendous accomplishment," York said. "I'm thrilled for Cooper Brown. He's a great young man and leader, and I expect him to do even better things next year."
As a team, Wallace State finished national runner-up for the third time under York, joining the squads in 1993 and 1996. The Lions entered the final round of the four-day tournament only three strokes back of eventual champion Indian Hills CC, which won the tournament in its home state. Indian Hills pulled away over the final 18 holes to earn its third championship in the last four years, while the Lions finished runner-up, seven strokes ahead of Iowa Western.
Wallace State finished with a 19-over par 1206, carding a 301-297-301-307. Indian Hills was the only other squad to better Wallace State's 297 last Wednesday.
The Lions and the entire national tournament field battled through unpleasant weather conditions all four days. York said it was near 80 degrees during practice rounds on May 11-12, but a series of thunderstorms came through before the tournament started last Tuesday, significantly changing the playing conditions. York said it never cracked the mid-50's the rest of the tournament, and the teams played through periods of misty rain each day, along with winds reaching 20 to 30 miles an hour.
"I can honestly say that was probably the toughest golf course one our teams has ever had to play on in my 27 years. We played near par the entire time, and that was impressive in itself because it the conditions were brutal the entire time," York said.
Brown didn't let the conditions deter him, especially during the playoff hole. Brown said his drive, on the par 4 hole, landed in the middle of the fairway and he then used an 8-iron to get the ball within about 35 feet of the green. Brown then chipped onto the green, approximately 12 feet from the hole. Meanwhile, Wicks had the similar results after three shots and his ball sat at nearly the exact spot at Brown's heading into their fourth attempt.
"It was so close they had to measure to see who had to putt first. It was a dead tie. We both looked at each other, and I decided I would go first. I rolled mine in somehow, and he (Wicks) left his short," Brown said. "I was so excited, I was shaking. Wicks is a great player. I wasn't expecting him to miss it at all."
Brown definitely put an incredible cap to a successful freshman season. He was also named an ACCC/All-Region 22 first-team selection after Wallace State won the state championship in late April. It was the program's 11th state title and the first since 2008.
Brown felt the valuable advice he received from York and Olsen contributed to his title.
"Coach York is the best. I wouldn't have won it without his help. He's always there for you," said Brown, who will return to the Lions next season. "Aksel was also a big reason why I was able to win the tournament. He took me under his wing all year and prepared me for the mental toughness I needed to close it out. He knew what it took because he had been there."
Brown bookended the tournament with a pair of 1-under 71's. He shot a 76 during the second round and a 75 on the third day, finishing with a 5-over 293.
Olsen, a Norwegian, followed up his national championship by finishing tied for eighth nationally in Iowa. He reached as high as fourth place after three rounds and carded a 77-71-73-79 to finish with a 12-over 300.
Chris Atchley, Will McDowell and Patrick Twesme were also integral pieces to Wallace State's national runner-up finish.
Wallace State closed the season as national runner-up, state champion and as runner-up at the NJCAA District IV tournament. The Lions qualified for the program's 19th national tournament after finishing runner-up at the district tournament in mid-April.
At the state tournament, Atchley was low medalist, earning the sophomore from Buckhorn a spot on the NJCAA All-Region 22 first team for the second consecutive year.
Among the sophomores leaving the program, Olsen is headed to play at South Florida, while Atchley and Patrick Twesme have signed to play at UNA. Jake Miller is set to join Samford next season. Ryan Bowie was also part of the sophomore class.
"This was an outstanding group of sophomores. Like all teams, they had their ups and downs, but they always responded positively," York said. "They are tremendous young men who are going to represent Wallace State well as they move on. I couldn't be more proud of them."