After leading Pepperdine to its first national title since the 1990s last week, head coach Michael Beard said something that resonated with Sam Houston’s Brandt Kieschnick.
Beard — who returned to his alma mater in 2012, the same year as Kieschnick — talked about a constant belief that his team could win a national championship. Kieschnick feels the same way about the Bearkats, especially after a historic postseason run that resulted in the program’s first trip to the NCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship.
“Michael Beard from Pepperdine is a friend, and I love what he said,” Kieschnick said. “He played for Pepperdine and came back to coach at his alma mater the same year I did at Sam Houston. He’s built that program to a top team, and we’ve tried to build this to a top team. He said it best. He said, ‘I always thought we could play at the highest level at Pepperdine, and we could win a national championship.’
“With Sam Houston — with our alumni, with where we’re at, the university is great — I’ve always thought that we could play at the highest level. I thought if someone could come in and stabilize the program and get the right kids, our competitiveness would be good enough. As an alumni I’ve always thought we could do something really good here ... and I’m just thankful to help do this for our great university.”
Sam Houston not only made it to the big stage, but excelled on it.
The Bearkats made the cut for the final day of stroke play, nearly reaching the cutoff for the match play portion of the tournament. They finished in a tie for ninth at 32-over-par, just seven strokes back of eighth place. Senior Will Holcomb, meanwhile, tied for eighth individually with a 1-under-par 279 for the tournament.
Sam Houston had the best finish of five Texas schools at the NCAA Championships, outperforming the likes of Texas Tech, TCU, SMU and Texas.
“We proved that we have the stuff inside this program to win a national championship,” Kieschnick said. “Once you’re close to it, and once you’re in the arena playing with the best teams in the country ... it’s just confirmation that when we play good, we can play with the best. That’s what I’m most proud of. We were right there. We had a chance to win a national championship. I’m just very humbled, and it’s more confirmation that we can do this.”
As remarkable as Sam Houston’s performance at the National Championship was, it almost never happened.
As the Bearkats prepared to play their final day at the Stillwater Regional, they found themselves in sixth place and one shot out of advancing. Adding to the adversity, Holcomb — the team’s star player and senior leader — received news that morning that he would not be playing due to COVID-19 contact tracing.
Faced with the reality that he might have played his last round at Sam Houston, though, Holcomb never had a doubt. His teammates validated his feelings, as Grayson Blunt, Luis Carrera, Paul Chaplet and Ting-Wei Hsieh led the Bearkats to a fourth-place finish.
“I just had a feeling that morning that I was going to play in the national championship,” Holcomb said. “My guys just never faltered at all. I was thinking that we’d see some adversity at some point, and how we reacted to that would determine if we made it or missed it. They were just steady all freaking day long. Ting-Wei was the only one that really saw a little adversity, and he chipped in for bogey on that hole.
“It could’ve been a lot more stressful of a day for me, and it was, but for some reason I just felt like something good was going to happen — and it did.”
While Holcomb couldn’t play, however, Kieschnick notes that the team still felt his presence.
“He woke up, got dressed and got ready to play, and myself and (Associate AD - Sports Medicine) Dustin LeNorman had to go tell him he wasn’t playing,” the coach said. “Then 20 minutes later I’m meeting with the team in the parking lot and he’s standing at his window looking at us, on the phone with us telling each guy, ‘I wouldn’t have any other four.’ He’s still dealing with the shock of this, but he’s still leading the other guys. It was pure sacrifice and just thinking about the team.”
Holcomb acknowledges that despite Sam Houston’s success this season, he has a bittersweet feeling knowing that he’s played his final round as a Bearkat. Still, watching his team grow from early-season struggles to making school history is something he’ll always remember fondly.
“Playing our first tournament out in Laredo, Coach didn’t even go with us because he had COVID. Coach Robert (Thompson) went with us, and me and him were nitpicking everybody’s game and we could see where they could get better,” Holcomb said.
“We were horrible, but we just kept getting better and better. We worked hard, and it was pretty cool to see this team that was making stupid, silly mistakes in Laredo to making it to the National Championship, playing great and having an opportunity to make match play. It was really cool getting to see us grow and get better as a group.”
Despite a couple significant losses, Kieschnick is confident that the Bearkats haven’t missed their National Championship window.
“We proved that we have the stuff inside this program to win a national championship,” he said. “Once you’re close to it, and once you’re in the arena playing with the best teams in the country ... it’s just confirmation that when we play good, we can play with the best.
“That’s what I’m most proud of. We were right there. We had a chance to win a National Championship. I’m just very humbled, and it’s more confirmation that we can do this.”