CARBONDALE — For the second time in the last four years, SIU's men's golf team won the Missouri Valley Conference championship, and unseated a unanimous favorite in the process.
The Salukis ended eight years of Wichita State dominance with their win in 2016, when Peyton Wilhoit was a freshman, and rallied to beat Illinois State by 10 shots Tuesday in Sunrise Beach, Missouri. SIU was the only team to shoot under par on the final day, carding a 7-under 281, to finish 5-under for the three-round tournament. The Salukis shot a remarkable 12-under on the back nine, scoring 15 birdies on the final nine holes at The Club at Porto Cima.
"This moment, this opportunity is exactly what we trained for all year long," SIU coach Justin Fetcho said in a press release. "I couldn't be any more proud of how this team stayed mentally tough and executed golf shots down the stretch. It's just a testament to their talent and belief in themselves."
SIU will play in one of six NCAA regionals between May 12-15. The Salukis will find out if they're playing in Athens, Georgia, Rhodes, Iowa, Louisville, Stanford, California, Pullman, Washington or Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, during the NCAA Selection Show. The show is scheduled to air on The Golf Channel's Golf Central on May 1 at 8 p.m. It will be streamed on The Golf Channel's website.
Wilhoit, the MVC player of the year last year, birdied four of his last five holes to finish 3-under, and 2-under for the tournament. He became the first player in school history to earn all-conference honors all four years. Wilhoit finished third, behind Missouri State's Kory Franks and medalist David Rauer of Illinois State.
"Everybody was excited and chomping at the bit to play this morning," Wilhoit said. "There was no doubt in my mind that these guys were going to play well."
Senior Luke Gannon (even) and Matthis Besard (even) tied for fifth place. Hunter York, a transfer from John A. Logan College, tied for 10th place after shooting the lowest score in the final round, a 4-under-par 68. Besard was named the MVC newcomer of the year.
Illinois State shot 4-over in the final round to fall out of first place. The Redbirds finished with a 5-over 869. Missouri State was third (+20), followed by Bradley (+30), Valparaiso (+38), Drake (+57), Loyola (+58) and Evansville (+73).
Prior to the MVC championship, the Salukis and Redbirds played each other in the same tournament three times this spring. Illinois State finished on top all three times, and by an average of 11 strokes. The Redbirds entered the week ranked No. 72 in the nation and was the unanimous choice to win the tournament in a poll of the nine head coaches.
"Even though they beat us three times, deep down we knew we hadn't pieced together our best golf," Fetcho said. "We went to battle with a really good team in Illinois State. They beat the No. 5 team in the country last week. Our guys were not afraid of the challenge. In our minds we knew we could beat them. We went out and took it, we earned it."
Besard, a freshman, was the team's scoring leader entering the day. He birdied four of the first 10 holes but bogeyed five of the last eight. Nevertheless, he posted his best tournament finish of the spring season. His final round 74 didn't count toward Southern's team scores because the team's fifth golfer, Frankie Thomas, rallied from a double-bogey on the first hole to post a final round 73.
SIU captured its second MVC men's golf championship in history with the win. Fetcho said the NCAA regionals may not be his team's last stop.
"The great thing about these guys is this is just the start of their postseason run," he said. "We're not going to regionals for a celebration. Our team and our seniors believe we can get to the national championship."