MUSCLE SHOALS, AL – A head-to-head battle between the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 ranked Division II men's golf teams may have been a little bit better as a national championship match, but that's not how the bracket worked out, and the national semifinals were the next best thing. That battle on Thursday afternoon at The Fighting Joe at Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail ended up being won by top-ranked West Florida, which came from behind over the final six holes to post a 3½-1½ decision over Florida Southern to advance to Friday's national championship match against 4th-ranked Lynn.
The match was more than just a national semifinal between two teams that had been ranked 1-2 in the coaches' poll virtually the entire season. It also marked the final appearance of Doug Gordin as Florida Southern's long-time head coach, as his nearly four-decade-long career ended this year with his retirement. The last 23 seasons came at Florida Southern where he won six NCAA Division II National Championships, got his teams to the national championship tournament 16 times, and an individual there on two other occasions. The Moccasins qualified for NCAA postseason play every year of his tenure, and have now reached at least the semifinals of medal play three years in a row. They also had their ninth individual national champion in senior John VanDerLaan, which was the sixth under Gordin.
Florida Southern reached Thursday's semifinal round with a 4-0-1 win over Lincoln Memorial earlier in the day, while West Florida had beaten Indianapolis 3½-1½. That set up a rematch of last year's semifinals where the Moccasins defeated the Argonauts 3-2 on their way to winning the national title.
Michael VanDerLaan was the first Moccasin out of the gate Thursday afternoon, and though he lost the first hole to Carlos Marrero, he won the second and kept things square through four. Both players narrowly avoided the water early in the round, VanDerLaan on one and Marrero on two, but it was water to the left of the No. 5 green that cost VanDerLaan three shots on that hole and gave the lead back to Marrero. He nearly got all of it back, though, on six when Marrero had trouble coming out of the sand on the right side of the fairway, and his own approach landed three feet from the cup. That led to a birdie and cut the deficit down to one.
Behind him, Christian Anderson had taken an early lead over Jacob Huizinga through two, but Huizinga reversed that with a birdie on three while Anderson doubled the hole. Much like VanDerLaan ahead of him, however, Anderson fought back from a three-shot deficit and with birdies on seven and eight, had it down to one.
In the third slot, John Coultas led his match nearly from start to finish. After both he Henry Westmoreland birdied the par-5 No. 1, Coultas took the lead for good with another birdie on two. Six straight pars pushed his lead to three shots and a drive on the par-3 No. 9 over the water set him up for a birdie putt from the fringe that gave him a four-shot advantage.
Freshman Jacob Penny, playing in the fourth slot against Chandler Blanchet was not as fortunate. The 2017 Division II National Player-of-the-Year jumped out by two shots on the first hole and never trailed. Penny virtually held his own on the back nine where there was only a one-shot difference, but Blanchet's earlier run was too much to overcome.
John VanDerLaan played in the final position and he too fell behind with a bogey on No. 1, and was then down two shots when Christian Bosso birdied No. 3. Immediately after, however, the match was tied when Bosso double-bogeyed four. The two continued to go back-and-forth most of the day and were all square after eight different holes. Twice Bosso managed to go up by two, but each time VanDerLaan tied the match simply by birdying holes. Ultimately it was a birdie by Bosso on 18 that tied their match for the final time, resulting in the split point. Even that came after VanDerLaan nearly aced the hole, his second such close encounter on 18 during the tournament. The tie gave him a 6-0-2 all-time record in match play at the national finals.
By the time that happened though, West Florida had already clinched the match. Marrero gave the Argonauts their first point after he won the final four holes to take his match over Mike VanDerLaan by three shots (71-74). Huizinga made it 2-0 when he pulled away from Anderson by winning 14 and 15 to go up by four and held that margin the rest of the way (72-76).
Coultas was next to finish, and with his one-shot win over Westmoreland, the Mocs were on the board. Coultas finished with a three-under-par 69, his second such score of the day, and had Florida Southern's two best scores in each of the medal play matches. The senior ended his career with a 7-1 mark all-time in that format.
Penny won two of the final five holes from Blanchet and was even in the other three, but the deficit was too much to overcome, and Blanchet's 70-77 win gave West Florida the third point needed to win.