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A clean sweep

Annie Brusky | Monday, April 26, 2004

With their season on the line, the Irish finally pulled it all together.After a thrilling come-from-behind rally, the men’s golf team won the Big East Championship and is headed to the NCAAs for the first time in 38 years.”We’re thrilled,” sophomore Tommy Balderston said. “Everything we’ve done in the season has been leading up to this point and coming through today has been really, really great.””It’s been a long time coming for us,” said sophomore Scott Gustafson. “It’s been a long, tough spring season. It feels great to finally break through like this.”The Irish defeated three-time defending league champion Virginia Tech by six strokes with a team score of 876 (290-295-291) and a well-balanced attack that included three all-conference finishes. Balderston (74-73-71) and freshman Cole Isban (69-75-74) tied for third place at eight-over par 218, both recording their lowest tournament score of the spring.Meanwhile, sophomore Eric Deutsch’s breakthrough performance landed him in a tie for fifth place at 219 (74-71-74), a full 13 strokes better than his previous low score in the spring, and earned him All-Big East honors as well.Sophomore Mark Baldwin was close to repeating his all-conference performance from last year, finishing just out of the top seven, in eighth place with a 13-over 223 (74-76-73).Finally, Gustafson rounded out the lineup with a score of 224 (73-78-73), landing him in 11th place.Playing at the par-70 Warren Golf Course, the Irish led by two at the end of the first round Saturday.Isban opened with a career-low round of 69, enjoying the support of friends and family and the familiarity of the home course.Gustafson, for his part, pulled in a 73, while the other three golfers all shot solid 74’s.The team struggled a little in the second round, dropping to five shots behind Virginia Tech at the end of first day.Still, coming into the final round on Sunday, the Irish were confident in their abilities.Last year, the Irish had held the lead going into the final day but were defeated by a late push on the part of Virginia Tech. This year, they decided to return the favor.The Irish made up 11 strokes on Sunday, 10 of them coming on the back nine.”Everyone played really strong,” Balderston said.Midway through the final round, Notre Dame gained an advantage as the wind started to pick up and the golfers had to factor in gusts of 30-40 mph.While the Irish had been practicing in similar conditions during the preceding weeks, the other teams were not accustomed to it.”It gave us a huge advantage,” Irish coach John Jasinski said.”It made it difficult to judge distances,” Balderston added. “It helped us make up strokes. Our team plays well on windy days.”With Notre Dame and Virginia Tech even after 13 holes, Balderston made an eagle on the par-5 14th hole.”That hole was a huge turnaround for all of us,” Balderston said. “A lot of birdies. We made up a lot of ground.”The Irish were able to capitalize from there on out and sailed to their fourth Big East title and first since 1997.”We’re a young team, with only freshmen and sophomores playing up to this point,” coach Jasinski said. “These young guys have been put in the fire. All those things you learn from playing, they haven’t gotten yet. Every week it’s been learn your lessons the hard way.”So to have a finish like this, with all the circumstances, it is a huge confidence boost for us.”Notre Dame’s final regular season tournament will be held in East Lansing, Mich. next weekend, but Jasinski will not be sending his top players.The Irish will most likely be assigned to the NCAA Central Regional, which will be held May 20-22 in West Lafayette, Ind.The Irish played their last tournament at the Boilermaker Invitational and found it to be a good fit for their team. With a few weeks to rest and practice, they should be ready to go.”We’re getting better and better,” Balderston said. “This win was a stepping stone. If our team plays to their potential, we have a realistic shot.”