Ratay, Kent lead team to Johnny Ray Invite
By KEVIN BERCHOU
In Augusta, it's signified by azaleas in full bloom and the sports masters at their best; while in South Bend, it's introduced by 40 degree temperatures and college's young guns trying to secure a spot in the NCAA Tournament they've long been shut out of.
Either way, it is the arrival of golf season, and this year the Notre Dame men's team hopes it's finally time inch its way back into the tournament.
The last year Notre Dame played in the NCAA Tournament was 1966. Jack Nicklaus was prince, Arnold Palmer was "The King" and the world had yet to see the moon, or Tiger Woods for that matter.
Thirty five years later, head coach George Thomas is optimistic that his team can rebound from a tough fall season to capture that elusive tournament bid.
"I am very optimistic about the coming year," Thomas said. "We are definitely more talented than the way we played in the fall."
Fueling Thomas' optimism is the return of his top two players, senior Alex Kent and junior Steve Ratay, both of whom boast scoring averages that rank among Notre Dame's all-time top five.
Kent's sterling 73.92 average is the best in school history, while Ratay is close behind, carding a mere 75.46 strokes per round.
"Alex is a premier player with great experience. He and Steve [Ratay] really compliment each other well," Thomas noted.
Though Kent has historically been the better player, it was Ratay who led the team's fall campaign, finishing as the low man in three of four events including the Wisconsin Invitational where he fired rounds of 71-70-71 to take medallist honors.
"Steve is as good a golfer as we'll see this spring. He is very dedicated to improving his game. He's our leader and team captain and has worked hard to get ready. I expect him to be a formidable force this spring," Thomas said.
Adding to Notre Dame's optimism is the return of senior Kyle Monfort who sat out last season. Monfort will likely shoot from the third spot, while Pat Schaffler will occupy the lineup's fourth spot, giving the Irish quite a quad at the top of the lineup.
"Kyle's return really makes us much stronger. He gives us another strong golfer at the top of the lineup," Thomas said.
The team's success, however, could hinge on Thomas' ability to find the right mix of talent to fill out his lineup.
Six golfers will compete for the last two spots, and Thomas is hopeful that this year his squad can finally be strong from top to bottom.
"Those spots are really important in the lineup, especially if one of the top players has a bad round. We never really came up with a consistent fifth and sixth man in the fall," Thomas said.
After finishing a respectable but unspectacular 18th in the rain- shortened El Diablo Intercollegiate last weekend, 26 strokes behind winner Toledo, Notre Dame will be looking for more birdies and less bogeys this weekend when they head south to tee it up in Johnny Owens Invitational in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Irish shot makers are not kidding themselves, though. They realize that the tournaments on the spring slate serve essentially one purpose: to get ready for the Big East Championships. After taking three titles in four years, the Irish choked at last year's spring tournamant, The Masters, the first year the conference champion received an automatic berth to the Big Dance.
This year, determined to end one streak and perhaps start another, Thomas promises better.
"We really have a great group of players on this team. I am confident that this team will play well this spring and be ready for the Big East Tournament,Ó Thomas said.
All Sports Stories for Friday, March 30, 2001