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April 24, 2014

NotesGet Acrobat Reader | Live Scoring | Tournament Central

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina men’s golf team is set to begin postseason play on Friday at the SEC Championship in St. Simons Island, Ga.

The 54-hole event runs through Sunday at the par-70, 6,898-yard Seaside Course at Sea Island Golf Club. South Carolina is hoping to be in the same situation it was in at last year’s championship but with a different result. After leading for 36-holes and for most of the final round, the Gamecocks lost the lead in the last three holes and finished runner-up to top-ranked Alabama by two strokes.

“I think it’s been a motivational factor for us the entire year,” South Carolina head coach Bill McDonald said. “More than anything I think it was a validation that our program was at a pretty high level last year, and it gave the guys a lot of confidence going into regionals and the NCAA Championship. We have such a strong conference that you just can’t go down there and decide you are going to win the golf tournament and just show up. It takes a lot of really good golf. We usually have some tough, windy conditions, so we are going to have to be very patient. I think if we are in contention on the back nine on the last day it will be another successful event for us.”

The Gamecocks are coming off one of the most successful regular seasons in school history, which included three tournament wins and a school-record seven-straight top-three finishes. The same five golfers that led South Carolina to all three tournament wins and a runner-up finish at the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate will be competing this weekend. Sophomore Matt NeSmith will occupy the No. 1 spot, followed by sophomore Will Starke, juniors Caleb Sturgeon and Will Murphy and freshman Ben Dietrich.

Sturgeon, NeSmith and Starke were all a part of last year’s runner-up lineup, while Murphy gained experience on the Seaside Course as a freshman in 2012. Sturgeon came close to bringing home medalist honors a year ago as he finished second, three strokes back of Arkansas’ Sebastian Cappelen.

NeSmith leads the team with a stroke average of 71.85, which ranks third all-time for a single season at South Carolina and is the lowest ever by a Gamecock sophomore. He is tied for the team lead with four top-five finishes. Starke, who ranks second on the team with an average of 72.50, has also recorded four top-five finishes on the season, including his first collegiate title at the Seahawk Invitational. Sturgeon has recorded four top-20 finishes, including a win at the Badger Invitational, while Murphy and Dietrich each have produced three top-20 finishes.

The Gamecocks are making their 23rd appearance at the SEC Championship and will be vying for their first SEC title. South Carolina has come up just short of winning the title on several occasions, with runner-up finishes in 1998, 2008 and 2013 and a third-place showing in 1999. Eric Ecker holds the distinction of being the only Gamecock to claim medalist honors as he won the rain-shortened event in 1998 with rounds of 70 and 66 in Athens, Ga. At the 2010 SEC Championship, George Bryan IV tied for first before losing in a playoff to Georgia’s Russell Henley. Bryan IV (2008) and Kyle Thompson (1999) have also finished tied for second.

The SEC continued its run of being one of the best golf conferences in the nation this season. In the latest Golfstat Relative Rankings, 11 of the 14 teams are ranked in the top 50, including seven in the top 25. Top-ranked Alabama, the defending SEC and national champion, leads the way, followed by No. 6 Georgia, No. 15 Vanderbilt, No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 21 Arkansas, No. 22 LSU, the 24th-ranked Gamecocks, No. 26 Auburn, No. 33 Kentucky, No. 41 Tennessee, No. 50 Mississippi State, Florida, Mississippi and Missouri. Twelve of the 14 teams in the conference have won at least one tournament this season, and the league has combined for 29 tournament victories in all. Alabama has an SEC-best six tournament wins, while the Gamecocks are tied for the second most with three. South Carolina has a 7-4 head-to-head record against teams from the SEC this season.

South Carolina will tee off in the first round on Friday at 9:10 a.m. and will be paired with Auburn and Kentucky. Live scoring will be available at all three days.