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Schwab, Pierce back from injury in a big way

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BRADENTON, Fla. – The week after he accepted the head coaching job at Vanderbilt, Scott Limbaugh cut short his family’s annual summer vacation in Highlands, N.C., and hopped on a plane bound for Austria.

The team’s prized recruit had just lost in the finals of the British Amateur, and Limbaugh desperately needed a face-to-face meeting, to make sure the verbal commitment was still solid.

Limbaugh’s wife, Kate, a former college basketball player, knew the drill, so Scott left behind a dozen relatives, jumped in the car and drove from Cashiers to Atlanta. From there he flew to Amsterdam and then on to Vienna, where he went straight to the course to watch the recruit play in the Austrian Open.

Yep, Matthias Schwab was that important to this emerging program.

“I knew he was a program changer,” Limbaugh said Saturday. “He immediately changes the program the moment he walks on campus.”

But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way, both for Schwab and Vandy. 

Schwab’s impact has come only in spurts – he won his first college tournament in the fall of 2013 and had a few other top 10s, but then his back began to ache. And then it got worse. And then, finally, it got serious, as Limbaugh and Schwab’s parents decided it was in his best interest to shut it down for the rest of the spring season.

“I could have ruined my career,” he said.  

Full coverage: NCAA Division I National Championships

Turns out Schwab, 20, had two stress fractures in his back (L-4 and L-5 vertebrae), and he wouldn’t play again for the Commodores for another 12 months.

Vanderbilt sorely missed him in the lineup, and without its No. 2 man the ’Dores stumbled on the final day of stroke play at Prairie Dunes and missed the match-play cut.

“You can’t replace guys like that,” Limbaugh said. “He has run the race so many times.”

There were days when Schwab wondered whether his career was over. He didn’t touch a club last fall, and it wasn’t until Brandt Snedeker and Ben Crane recommended a physical therapist named Tom Boers that Schwab felt optimistic.   

He played his first nine holes in December, went home to Austria for the winter break, and returned with a more positive outlook.  

Schwab’s injury necessitated a few changes – standing taller and closer to the ball, to take the strain off his back – but by mid-February he was confident enough to rejoin the lineup. Within six weeks, he’d posted three consecutive top-5s, including a win at the Mason Rudolph. At NCAA regionals earlier this month, he tied for second.

“He’s always solid,” senior Hunter Stewart said. “It’s hard to play poorly when you hit it as solidly as he does.” 

“He believes he belongs,” Limbaugh said. “He gives everybody a sense of confidence because I’ve never seen somebody so in control of their emotions and in control of their golf ball.”

Schwab’s absence helped shape this Vanderbilt team that entered this week’s NCAA Championship as the No. 5 team in the country.

Without their second-best player, the Commodores have relied heavily on Stewart, and the All-American has delivered in a big way. This has been by far the best year of his career – he has top-11s in all 11 starts (including three wins), and he’s a finalist for every national award.

Put them together, and Stewart and Schwab are one of the most feared 1-2 punches in college golf.

Here in the second round of NCAAs, Schwab and Stewart combined to shoot 4 under Saturday to help Vandy rise 14 spots in the standings, to sixth overall.

“You know what you’re getting from those guys,” Limbaugh said.

A stress fracture is a common sports injury, especially for guys who have been going at it as long and hard as some of these elite college players, but nothing was ordinary about how LSU sophomore Brandon Pierce handled the adversity.

Pierce battled all last spring just to crack the Tigers’ lineup, but his season came undone after an event in mid-March.

He doesn’t know what specifically caused his stress fracture – the strain of weightlifting in the fall, or maybe the jolt of hitting a root a few days earlier – but Pierce collapsed to the ground after making a practice swing. He played the last two holes, but knew something was wrong.

Pierce ended up sitting out seven months, until last November.

The 20-year-old is a die-hard Tigers fan, following both his dad and grandfather to Baton Rouge, so he did all he could to help while he was out of action.

“I was like a cheerleader,” he said.

Every day he watched his teammates practice, zipping around in a cart to offer words of encouragement.

Before the team left for an event, he would type out a one-page note to each starter, drive to the university course and stick it in their lockers. He’d be there every time the Tigers returned home too, whether it was 11 p.m. Tuesday or 3 p.m. Sunday.  

On a roster of eight to 10 players, it’s easy for those outside the traveling five to not feel like part of the team. As much as a coach might try to make it inclusive, they are inherently separate, the starters and the bench players.

“Most young men 18-22, they probably don’t have the maturity to handle it and be genuinely pulling for those other guys,” LSU coach Chuck Winstead said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Pierce is back helping his team on the course, and he’s a major reason why the Tigers are even at this week’s NCAAs.

After a runner-up finish during a winter amateur event told him that his body was ready, Pierce has been one of the steadiest contributors for No. 9 LSU, finishing in the top 30 in all seven spring starts. It was his closing 65 at the New Haven regional that helped the Tigers erase an 11-shot, final-round deficit and move inside the top-5 bubble.

And here at Concession, he has continued to roll, sitting only a few shots off the individual lead after back-to-back rounds of 71. As a team, LSU is second among the early starters Saturday, at 5-over 581.

“I’m just really happy to be back with my team,” he said.

With the way Schwab and Pierce are playing, their teammates are happy they’re back, too.