Swan songs don’t come much sweeter than the one UT-Tyler head golf coach King Campbell experienced Friday at the Sandestin Golf and Beach resort.
His men’s team won the 2013 NCAA Division III Golf Championship then almost three hours later, the UT-Tyler women finished second behind Mary Hardin-Baylor in the women’s tournament, with freshman Laura Lindsay as low-score medalist.
“What a story,” said Campbell, who is retiring following this week’s championships.
The UT-Tyler men finished with a seven-stroke victory against second-place Transylvania after trailing by two strokes as Friday’s final round began. Consistency and the ability to make needed shots propelled them ahead on Sandestin’s Raven course.
In the mix all week, UT-Tyler had faced no pressure because it hadn’t generated any, per their head coach. Ranked 15th nationally heading in, the Patriots hadn’t won their American Southwest Conference tournament, which had left them hoping for an at-large NCAA bid.
“They are just a great story,” Campbell said. “They just played with a confidence that there was nothing left to lose — we barely got in the tournament — and these kids just didn’t give up. They just didn’t give up.”
His squad, which stood third after Tuesday’s opening round, simply didn’t fade, remaining knotted at the top of the standings with Transylvania and eventual third-place finisher Methodist as each day’s rounds progressed. Although his players know Campbell is retiring, senior Joey Rippel said the full impact of what was happening Friday didn’t hit him until the final groups walked the final holes.
“I realized how big this was and how important it was for him,” Rippel said. “This is the best gift we could give him.”
Rippel played a huge role, per his head coach. It was his first-round rebound that set the tone for his teammates’ run.
“The first day, [Rippel had] been playing really poorly in the practice round and before,” said Campbell, pinpointing UT-Tyler’s NCAA breakthrough. “He hit a ball that stropped about a foot from going out of bounds. He ended up making bogey on that hole, but then he eagled the next hole and everything seemed to be a bonus from that point because he had been struggling so bad. In fact, they had to offer him more golf balls after the practice round because he had hit so many in the water.”
Friday’s triumph was as much a landmark to Rippel as it was to his coach. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007, he endured six months of chemotherapy and radiation as a high school junior.
“After that, I was just happy to play golf in college,” said Rippel, who finished in a three-way tie for 16th. “Because I didn’t play much high school, I didn’t have many opportunities and Coach offered me a spot.”
Rippel received his five-year, clean bill-of-health — a milestone for cancer survivors — only weeks ago, making Tuesday’s first-round renaissance even sweeter.
“He’s the finest young man I think I’ve ever coached,” Campbell said. “He never gets down on himself, never gets mad, never uses profanity. A class guy whether he’s shooting a low or high round and he hung in there all four days when he wasn’t playing well. I can’t say that I was thinking that we were going to win it at that point, but I think that was a turning point.”
At the opposite end of UT-Tyler’s feel-good performance was freshman Buddy Hallman, who finished second in the individual competition to low medalist Brad Shigezawa of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. Like Rippel, the import of winning UT-Tyler’s first DIII golf title for the outgoing Campbell, struck as he walked Friday’s last holes.
“On the first tee, I wasn’t nervous,” said Hallman, the 6-foot-five freshman who wears a size-15 shoe. “But for some reason, when we got to 16, I could tell by his body language — he was walking around and smiling — and I was lucky to get on the green.”
Hallman’s four-day performance — 75, 70, 70 and 72, respectively — formed the backbone of UT-Tyler’s surge. And it couldn’t have been predicted earlier this season, when a solid autumn deteriorated to the point that Campbell sat him for several spring tournaments.
“Then he started playing better,” Campbell said. “But [Friday} he was so nervous. We got to the tee on 16 and he said, ‘Coach, where do we stand?’ And I said, ‘well, Buddy, we’ve got a lead,’ and he said, ‘I think I’m going to faint.’ And I said, ‘well, don’t throw up.’”