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What a story: Shorthanded Sam Houston State, down best player, makes history in Stillwater

Graphic: Sam Houston State Twitter

Sam Houston State head coach Brandt Kieschnick had one message for his players Tuesday morning before the most important round of their season: Let’s write ourselves the story of the year.

Just hours earlier, the Bearkats received crushing news that fifth-year senior Will Holcomb, their best player who was second individually through 36 holes of the NCAA Stillwater Regional, would be forced to withdraw because of COVID-19 protocols and his team, in sixth and oh so close to a landmark national-championship berth, would have to play the final round with just four players.

But the remaining Bearkats didn’t fold; they brought their pens.

Without the luxury of a drop score, Sam Houston State didn’t count anything worse than 76 around an always-demanding Karsten Creek layout and shot 7-over 295 to qualify for the program’s first NCAA Championship.

“What happened today was meant to be,” said Kieschnick, who had his Nos. 3-5 players each card closing 73s as the Bearkats finish fourth at 11 over, four shots clear of fifth-place Little Rock, which made five birdies on its final hole to also secure its first NCAA Championship appearance.

“My message to these guys this morning – and my faith comes in here – I said, ‘Listen, I don’t know why this has happened. This is bad, but something good can come out of this. Someone is watching over us and I believe – I don’t know if it’s now, six months from now or a year – something good’s going to come out of this. Let’s go write a pretty cool story.’”

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Here’s how it began: After a grueling 36-hole day, Kieschnick and his team underwent mandatory testing Monday night. One of the tests came back positive, that of Jack Randle, Sam Houston State’s sixth man and Holcomb’s roommate this week. Holcomb subsequently tested negative, but under NCAA contact-tracing rules, he would not be permitted to tee it up Tuesday, even solo.

After a night of deliberation the NCAA confirmed their decision, and Kieschnick broke the news to Holcomb early Tuesday morning. It was especially heartbreaking for a player who as a sophomore once played an entire fall semester in a walking boot after breaking his right foot during the night of his wedding.

“He’s one of the toughest kids in golf, one of the best competitors,” Kieschnick said. “He’s a guy that rises to the occasion, the bigger the event, the better he plays.”

Instead of competing, though, the Bearkats’ affable, mullet-donning leader from Crockett, Texas, was quarantined in his hotel room. Before the shorthanded team left for the course, Kieschnick gathered his remaining players in the parking lot as Holcomb, standing in the window of his second-story room and looking down at his teammates, delivered some inspiration over the phone: “Guys, this can’t be it.”

With Holcomb’s eyes glued to live scoring back at the hotel, Kieschnick and his assistant coach Tommy Chain fought back tears all day as they watched their competing players pull off the miraculous: up-and-downs from 100 yards, chip-in bogeys, 20-foot par saves.

“We were trying not to let the guys see us cry because they were playing so hard,” Kieschnick said.

Finally, as the four Bearkats began making their way up the final hole, the par-5 ninth, Kieschnick’s phone buzzed. It was Holcomb: Chill out, Coach. We’re fine.

When Paul Chaplet’s ball, with “JW” written on it for Jack and Will, dropped for par at the ninth, it didn’t just solidify Sam Houston State’s position inside the top five along with Little Rock, SMU, Illinois and winner Oklahoma State, and punch the Bearkats’ ticket to Grayhawk. It also kept Holcomb’s college career alive. (Kieschnick added that he expects his star to be cleared in time for next Friday's first round in Scottsdale, Arizona.)

Back at the hotel, Holcomb, who a year ago had debated even returning to school for an extra season, took to social media to express his sheer joy.

“I just want to thank them so much for the greatest-fought rounds of their lives today at one of the hardest golf courses in the nation,” Holcomb said via Instagram Live, before screaming, “and we’re going to the natty because my boys, baby! Let’s go! We going! They had my back!”

It had already been a special season for the 49th-ranked Bearkats, who have yet to finish worse than fifth after starting their season in January. They closed their regular season with two wins in their last three events, including a third straight victory at the Southland Conference Championship, where Chaplet medaled. They grabbed a program-best No. 8 seed for regionals before making more history.

And most importantly, they had dodged the coronavirus all season – that is until Monday, when Sam Houston State nearly had another golf program's season end suddenly for the second straight week.

Kieschnick also coaches the school's women’s team, which capped its season in heartbreaking fashion last Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after inclement weather and poor course conditions kept a single shot from being hit. The Bearkat women were eliminated after the NCAA ruled to advance the top six seeds to nationals.

“Last week was pretty tough, and then last night, I was like, Oh, no, here we go again,” Kieschnick said, “but as low as I was 24 hours ago, now it’s complete elation and joy. Our girls and guys are really close, so part of the motivation this week with the guys was the girls. They were like, ‘Do it for us.’”

The scrappy Bearkats did it, for the women’s team and for their leader, Holcomb. They wrote one heck of a story. And the best part? It’s not finished yet.