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Cal looks to finish record-setting season in style

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After his team’s record-setting victory May 18, Cal coach Steve Desimone received a mind-blowing text message.

A few hours earlier, at NCAA regionals in Pullman, Wash., Cal had won for the 11th time in 13 starts, a new modern-day NCAA record for most victories in a season. Now came a text from one of Desimone’s former players, a proud supporter who had never enjoyed such fruitful times during his stint with the Golden Bears:

Coach, you’re 173-3-1 and up over 6,000 shots against the fields this year.

Desimone read the powerful message over and over again, stunned, as his team headed toward the airport.

“I can’t imagine anyone is ever going to compete with that again,” he said last week. “All we can do is shake our heads.”

And, potentially, finish off the best college season ever.

There is an unprecedented level of buildup for this week’s NCAA Championship, which begins Tuesday at Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course outside Atlanta.

Cal is the prohibitive favorite, the No. 1 team in the country, an 11-win juggernaut that, as Jim Skinner’s text read, has lost to another team head to head only three times in the past nine months.

Yet, here’s the most unsettling aspect of the Golden Bears’ run to greatness: In the single-elimination match-play format used at NCAAs, the distinct possibility exists that the nation’s best team could return to Berkeley without the hardware.

Since 2009, when match play was instituted, only once has the No. 1-ranked team hoisted the trophy at the end of the season.

“Is there a risk that all of this could come crashing down after one day of match play? Of course,” Desimone said. “Does it linger? I’m not going to kid you, it does have a little seed in the back of my mind.

“But it’s the format and rules that we’re playing under. If we want to stake our claim as being one of the best teams of all time, this is what’s in front of us. Anything short of that would be a tremendous disappointment.”

Already Cal is the winningest team ever, and the squad’s 2012-13 stats jump off the page.

The Golden Bears have the nation’s top player in sophomore Michael Kim, a medium-length hitter who can putt lights out. He has the team’s best scoring average, at 70.1, but No. 5 man Brandon Hagy checks in at 71.0. In other words, all five starters were within 0.9 strokes of each other during the season. That’s unheard of in team golf.

What’s more, Cal’s average first-round low counting score was 67.5, meaning it raced out to big leads this season and didn’t relent.

At regionals, the Golden Bears won the team title by 20 shots. That week, though, they also became the first team ever to have all five starters record an individual win during the season. That the last man to break through was Michael Weaver – the 2012 U.S. Amateur runner-up and 2013 Masters participant – spoke to the team’s incredible depth.

“The most impressive thing to me is that every single guy on that team has an opportunity to win,” said Derek Freeman, head coach of third-ranked UCLA. “Not just guys, who if they play absolutely perfect, can win. I’m talking they legitimately have five guys who can go out and win the golf tournament.”

Stroke-play prowess can only carry Cal so far, though. Eight teams qualify for match play after the three-round stroke-play qualifier. The Golden Bears could win by a dozen shots and only have the No. 1 seed to show for it.

In fact, so dominant has Cal been during the season that anything less than a victory this week could prompt a change to how the year-end champion is determined.

“If ever there was a time where we should look at whether match play is the right thing to do for our championship, this would be it,” Freeman said. “It’s clear that Cal has played better than anyone and has done it on a longer scale. Someone is going to have to play really well to beat them. But match play gives you that chance.”

Desimone has never been a fan of match play determining the NCAA winner. Sure, last year at Riviera, there was a No. 1 vs. No. 2 final, the matchup everyone wanted to see, and Texas prevailed on the final hole in an epic match. But two years ago, Oklahoma State was the No. 1 team in the country, a winner eight times during the regular season, and the Cowboys didn’t even make the final.

“No team has had the success we’ve had this year,” Desimone said. “But we know what’s in front of us now.”

It guarantees little in this unpredictable format, of course, but Cal has also enjoyed success at this year’s NCAA venue, a big, brawny course that isn’t ideal for match play. One coach said that unless the tees are moved around to create some excitement, this year’s championship could be a “grind of monumental proportions.”

That style of play would seem to suit Cal, which has arguably the longest hitter in college golf in Hagy, as well as two other boppers, Max Homa and Weaver. Their length puts pressure on their opponents, especially if the rough is long and gnarly, as it was during the NCAA Preview last September. Cal and UCLA shared team honors during that event, and the low individual score after 54 holes was 2 under.

“You have to bring your A game across the board or it’s over,” Desimone said.

OK, so if not Cal, then whom?

New Mexico is one of the few teams that has beaten Cal, head to head, and has the power to contend at Capital City Club. North Florida resembles the Augusta State teams that went back to back in 2010 and ’11. Washington has Ben Hogan Award winner Chris Williams at the top of the lineup.

But the best bet is the Alabama Crimson Tide, whose triumvirate of 2012 Player of the Year Justin Thomas, Cory Whitsett and Bobby Wyatt is arguably the strongest 1-2-3 in the country. That trio combined for five wins and 20 top 10s this season.

All three players were part of last year’s NCAA finals team, the one that pushed Texas to the 18th hole at Riviera before finally succumbing.

The core is intact, yes, but the team is missing 2012 graduate Hunter Hamrick, whose bulldog personality helped shape the Tide. Much like last year, however, this team is the undisputed No. 2 in the country, steamrolling into NCAAs having won six of its seven spring starts. They’re a “quietly confident bunch,” said head coach Jay Seawell. And more importantly, they are driven by last year’s near miss.

“Everyone has something that makes them want to climb a mountain,” Seawell said. “I do believe somewhere inside all of our guys that’s in there. I’d be lying if I said it’s not inside of me also.”

Which team did Alabama defeat in last year’s semifinals? Ironically, it was Cal, which came within two lip-outs of advancing. The Golden Bears returned four starters from a year ago and added Weaver, who was coming off a redshirt season.

With strong play from those two teams – and, it seems, a bit of good luck – we’ll see another No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown come Sunday.

“That’s been our motivation from the moment we lost,” Desimone said. “Everything we did pointed toward winning a championship this year. Is it possible that we’ll get it? Yes. But it’s possible that we’ll fall short, too. And it’ll be as bitter as it can get.”