Freshman Zach Zaback leads the Huskies into the BIG EAST Championship.
By KENNETH BEST
STORRS, Conn. (April 26, 2013) --- College golf in the northeast is, well, a different kind of experience. Last week the Huskies traveled to Penn State, where there was rain and snow. This weekend they head to Florida for the Big East Championship.
"At Penn State I think we saw all four seasons in the tournament; there was rain, sun, snow and hail," says head coach Dave Pezzino. "Packing for a road trip constitutes rain gear and winter gloves. This week we go to Florida and these guys will pack shorts and feel weird doing it. It's cool by me. I like the fact my guys are tough. Just tell us when we need to be there; then see the scores."
The scores this season for the Huskies have again been good, as they have been since Pezzino arrived in Storrs six years ago. Under Pezzino, UConn has 20 Big East Academic All-Stars, two All-Conference picks, five All-Northeast Regional selections, and four All-New England picks. This season each of the top five Husky golfers have had a Top 10 finish, led by freshman Zach Zaback, who won the New England D-1 Championship two weeks ago with a tournament low-round of 6-under 66.
"We've been able to upgrade our recruiting and our schedule," Pizzino says. "It's a marathon not a sprint. Our guys are all ready to compete. They're not scared of stepping into the lineup."
This year's squad is very young. With the exception of junior Mike Masso '14 (BUS), an honors scholar and finance major, the team is made up of three sophomores and five freshmen. Pizzino says the Husky golfers in recent years have established a foundation of good play that has led to increasing success on the golf course. And the Huskies are showing their mental toughness, perhaps the most important factor in playing golf.
"They're tough, but they get along well," Pezzino says. "Sometimes you want a team with creative tension. When guys weren't playing well, nobody panicked. It was `we've got to figure out who the best group is and then play.'"
Pezzino says Zaback is a case in point, describing him as a "quietly confident young man, who has a lot of game," and is the type of student-athlete that fits his philosophy of recruiting golfers who are accomplished all-around athletes. At Farmington High School (Conn.), Zaback played soccer for two years, including his junior season when the team won a state title.
"He was an elite soccer player and runner. He's got a repeatable golf swing, becoming more multi-dimensional," Pezzino says. "He can hit high to low or low to high shots. A lot of freshmen come in with one style. Zach will try anything. He takes a lot of responsibility and pride in his game. He'll do what it takes to be ready. I don't have to worry about him at all."
Masso, who was a walk-on during the 2011-12 season, has emerged as the team's leader, helping his younger teammates with their academics and leading by example on the course.
"He's probably one of the brighter guys I've ever coached and he's also a street smart kid," Pezzino says. "If something is not working, he tries to play to his strength. I think that's part of his academic wherewithal. It's a game that can change mid-round.
The Big East Championship will be contested at Reunion Resort in Reunion, Fla., on the course designed by major champion Tom Watson. It is a long par 72 layout, measuring 7,154 yards from the championship tees.
"With three rounds on the Watson course you have to be patient and play your game," says Pezzino, who previously coached and was a master instructor in Florida. "You need to hit it down the left side on a par four and don't try to drive the green."
Pezzino says today's young players can all hit the ball far, but to succeed they need to learn to score by hitting their irons into the targets on the green. During the cold weather in Storrs, the Huskies worked inside the Mark R. Shenkman Training Center, setting up mats on the 20-yard line of the football field to practice hitting their shots into the goal line area 80-yards away before moving closer for shorter wedge shots.
"I was surprised with the maturity the young group brought together. We've hung around. We won a tournament," Pezzino says. "The great thing is the golf ball doesn't know anything about that. I'll take my guys. We'll play anybody, any time. I like that fact that we're so young. The next couple of years it will be difficult to crack into our lineup."