MORAGA, Calif. -- The Saint Mary's golf team opens play Monday at the West Coast Conference Championships with the added pressure, for the first time ever, of being the tournament's defending champions.
The Gaels will join league rivals BYU, Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Clara Monday through Wednesday at Gold Mountain Golf Course in Bremerton, Wash. for the annual 54-hole event that determines the WCC's team and individual automatic qualifiers for the NCAA regional championships.
Saint Mary's is scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. start Monday morning on the 10th hole of the 7,124-yard, par 72 Olympic Course at Gold Mountain GC. Paired with players from San Francisco and BYU, the Gaels will feature a lineup of Ben Geyer, Mac McClung, Jonathan De Los Reyes, Dalan Refioglu and Alex Bungert. Bungert will be the first Gael off the tee, followed by the rest of the lineup every 10 minutes.
Last season at San Juan Oaks Golf Course in Hollister, Calif., the Gaels won their first-ever WCC title with a 9-stroke victory over second-place San Francisco. Geyer nailed a dramatic long birdie putt just off the 18th green to clinch medalist honors, SMC's first conference champion since Joe Lanza in 2005.
SMC head coach Scott Hardy expects his experienced lineup to be able to handle the added expectation that comes with being the tournament's defending champions.
"There's added pressure for the guys being the defending champions and expecting to win this year," said Hardy, who is a six-time WCC Coach of the Year. "Expectations can be tough when you have that on your back. Every team is trying to beat you and sometimes it feels like you can only fail when you are expected to win.
"They have played a lot of tournament golf, they've seen the golf course we are going to and they know what to expect. All five guys can play well at any time and all five guys are capable of winning the tournament."
Saint Mary's enters the championships ranked 23rd in the Golfstat.com and Golfweek/Sagarin national ratings and 24th in the Golf World/Nike coaches poll. The Gaels are the only West Coast team not from the Pac-12 Conference ranked among the national top-25.
In their 10 tournament appearances this season, the Gaels have finished among the top three teams eight times. SMC individuals have posted 16 top-10 finishes.
Gold Mountain Golf Course has hosted a number of championship events, including the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, the 2008 NCAA West Regional Championships and the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championships. Earlier this year, the Gaels finished third out of 15 teams at the Washington Husky Invitational at Gold Mountain.
"We played Gold Mountain at Washington's tournament in the fall, but it is definitely going to be different this spring because it has been raining a lot and the course is going to be long and wet with heavy rough," said Hardy. "But, it is a golf course that favors us a little bit because you have to hit the ball long and we have a long-hitting team.
"We are looking forward to Gold Mountain. It is one of my favorite courses and the guys love it. It is one of the best courses we see in college golf."
Along with the defending champion Gaels, Hardy believes there are a number of WCC teams capable of winning this year's league title.
"The league is really, really good this year," said Hardy. "The top four or five teams are really strong and should be in a position make the NCAAs. To have 50 percent of our conference to go into the postseason is pretty strong."