The Nebraska men's golf team fired its best round of the Big Ten Championships and one of its most clutch rounds of the season to make some history by finishing fifth in the event last weekend at the Philadelphia Cricket Club.
But it was the Huskers' highest round of the week 24 hours earlier that did just as good a job illustrating how far the program has come in its first season under Mark Hankins.
"The second day we came out with absolutely the right mindset and put together a nice round. Then, of course, the third day," Hankins said this week. "All five guys were in it, too. We didn’t have anybody going off the reservation. So even if there would have been a couple bogeys or something, I think we would have been able to still close out a really solid round and finish where they did."
Nebraska's 305 on a wind-blown second day in Philadelphia actually moved the Huskers into position for a top-five finish, which NU secured with a final-round 286.
Nebraska's finish was its best since joining the Big Ten in 2011, bettering its previous best by four spots. NU was one shot out of fourth and three shots out of third, beating three top-50 teams. For a program mired at the bottom of the league since joining, it was a big step forward in the final competition of the season.
"It's been a lot of learning. We'll put a couple rounds together; we'll have one really great round and then a couple bad," Hankins said of the season. "So it was a full team effort."
Nebraska finished the season ranked 145th nationally by Golfweek, up nearly 40 spots from where the Huskers finished last year.
"We needed to get that better," Hankins said.
Finishing fifth in Philadelphia, and a program-best fourth at the Big Ten Match Play in February, went a long way in that rise. The next step now is to start competing at the top of tournament fields on a consistent basis.
"We had a chance to finish third pretty easily this last weekend. So to be in contention to win golf tournaments every week is our goal," Hankins said. "And we didn't meet that goal this year, but we definitely saw improvement."
That improvement was led by junior Tanner Owen, who solidified himself as Nebraska's top player this season after spending his sophomore year in and out of the lineup. On an 11-man roster that loses five of its seniors, Owen's return next season provides a solid building block.
Owen, along with transfer senior Jay Cottam, tied for 16th at the Big Ten Championships. That set a record for best individual finish by a Husker in the conference's championship.
"I'm really excited about Tanner Owen. He had a great year for us," Hankins said. "He really showed up and played some good golf for us down the stretch."
Hankins said he's still working to round out Nebraska's 2019 recruiting class and is finishing off Nebraska's schedule for next season. The Huskers played one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten this year and must continue to do so, Hankins said earlier this season, to give them the best possible chance at earning an at-large bid to NCAA regional play.
"After being here a year, I've got a better idea of where we can travel to, where we can't, how early we can go, just all the little tricks of performing at our best every week," Hankins said.
For now, it's up to the returning players to take the summer to improve. Hankins said he's been "imploring" his players to play as challenging a summer schedule as possible.
"This is when you get better. This is when you gain confidence. When you become a player is when you have three months in the summer to play every day and play in big-time tournaments," Hankins said. "So they all have a big-time schedule in front of them. They need to pick those tournaments and play all summer and get better."