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NCAA bid puts West Virginia’s golf relaunch ahead of schedule


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s golf program, already 72 years removed from its last NCAA tournament appearance, didn’t have to wait much longer Wednesday night.

The first regional revealed on the GolfChannel’s selection show featured Sean Covich’s team. That was their cue for light applause — indeed, some golf-claps — and the Mountaineers began making plans to be a No. 8 seed this weekend in Louisville.

Allan Taylor

Only five years ago, Covich was being courted to restart men’s golf at WVU from a three-decade hiatus. Recruiting scratch golfers while building a program from scratch sounded like a neat challenge, until the full scope of the project struck Covich during his interview.

“I asked them where’s the driving range? And they said, there’s not one.”

Advancing among 81 teams into the NCAA field bid proves success doesn’t require abundant sunshine, hitting bays, or even a driving range. It also validates Covich’s risky decision in 2014 to leave an assistant’s post at Mississippi State, his alma mater.

“I know other coaches who interviewed here and may even have been offered the job,” he said. “They turned it down because you’re not going to have this and you’re not going to have that.

“When I got here I knew that it was going to be cold and we were going to be terrible for a while. But it’s the Big 12, and I thought it would be cool.”

The lavish state of West Virginia’s golf facilities nowadays? A small room on the Evansdale campus, where players take turns hitting into a single TrackMan simulator or rolling balls on what Covich calls “a small piece of putting turf.”

Such spartan surroundings have become a point of pride for a team defying odds to reach the postseason.

“We don’t have the best of anything,” Covich said, “but we’re going to make the best of what we have.”

Rainy day people

Perhaps this NCAA bid traces its roots back to a rainy day last September in Richmond, Va. A day that opened with a stellar nine holes at the VCU Invitational and ended with an impromptu trip Dave & Buster’s.

“There’s a rain delay, so we’re sitting in the hotel for like six hours when the boys say, ‘Let’s go do something,’” Covich said. Off to the arcade went the crew, where it had such a fun time that the coach texted his wife a premonition about a strong season.

“We hadn’t had that brotherhood since I’ve been here. Now it was like, these guys are pretty good —andthey want to be together.”

Covich admits the startup roster he constructed around transfers in 2015-16 didn’t mesh. Uncomfortable with the bickering and negativity, he made the difficult decision to let some players go. “Not a good vibe,” he recalled. “There were so many dark times and disappointments, and some days I wondered, ‘What am I doing?’ It was not good for the program.”

Team chemistry might seem irrelevant for a player standing alone over a 12-foot putt, but Covich swears by the cumulative effect of culture-building.

“It’s all about what makes the players want to get better. Now, even if we have a day or two off, they’ll still go practice and go out to The Pines and play.

“And there’s something to be said for when you’re walking to your tee time and your buddies are saying ‘Hey, man, go play well.’ You don’t want to let them down, as opposed to being on an island, where no one’s talking to you and you don’t even like the other guys.”

A ‘big get’

When Covich went scouting at a 2015 juniors tournament in Hilton Head, S.C., he carried a list of seven prospects he intended to watch. The first to tee off was Matthew Sharpstene.

“First time I saw him hit a golf ball I thought, ‘Wow, that looks pretty good.’ So then I’m looking around and wondering, ‘Where’s Clemson? Where’s UNC? Where’s Virginia Tech?’”

Sensing an opportunity, Covich changed plans and followed Sharpstene throughout the entire round. The next day he stayed with the kid again, ultimately closing out those 36 holes with a desperate recruiting pitch: “You have to come to Morgantown.”

Sharpstene committed the following February, though being a high school junior, he couldn’t yet sign his letter of intent. Four months later, after surging to a fourth-place finish in stroke play at the U.S. Junior Amateur, Sharpstene had elite programs making offers.

“They didn’t know who I was until I shot 66 in the U.S. Junior, and then I started seeing LSU, Alabama and North Carolina,” Sharpstene said. “All those schools told me if you want to come, you’ve got a spot.”

Though Sharpstene knew all along he “wanted to be a Mountaineer,” Covich couldn’t relax until signing day arrived.

“I mean, every other coach was talking about Matt. So I’m just thinking, ‘Please still sign with us. Please still sign with us.’ And he did,” Covich said. “That was a big get for us.”

Now a sophomore, Sharpstene enters the postseason ranked 68th nationally by Golfstat.

The program’s two seniors, Max Sear and Tristan Nicholls, are the first four-year players under Covich. He lauds their development and commitment by proclaiming, “Now thisis a West Virginia golf team.” which is accidentally comical, given that they hail from Canada and Australia.

The coach remembers a Skype session in which he asked Nicholls what he knew about American college golf. When Nicholls revealed he had once visited Stanford on a trip to the U.S., Covich joked, ’Well, we’re nothing like that. Lower your expectations.”

Sear came aboard based on the availability of immediate playing time, and Covich’s promise that “Morgantown is slightly warmer than Toronto.”

Loaded regional

Among the 13 teams bound for the Louisville Regional are the nation’s No. 1 overall seed, Oklahoma State, which tore through The Greenbrier last weekend to win the Big 12 Championship — some 37 shots ahead of WVU.

The regional competitors include Auburn, North Florida, Baylor, Iowa State, Arizona, Louisville and Mississippi State. After 54 holes, only the low five teams will advance to the national finals in Fayetteville, Ark.

“Fair or not we’re going to be compared to those teams,” Covich said. “There’s no asterisks that say’ ‘Oh, there’s no practice facility — that’s why they shot 24-over.’ And no asterisk that says ‘But their weather is worse than the rest of the teams.’

“Nobody cares when you put a score up there.”

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