Tuesday, Georgia Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler found himself typing out a text message to his team that he could have never before imagined sharing in the middle of March. The gist of the communication, Heppler said, was that “I’ll always hold this group in very high esteem for what they accomplished and the way they went about stuff.”
In any other spring but this one, it would be an odd time to speak of the team in the past tense. But there, it was, the coach turning the page on his team two months before he would have hoped to do so. Heppler’s text followed the ACC’s announcement that it had done the inevitable and canceled all athletics activities through the end of the academic year to help curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
“I think it’s set in a little bit more now,” Heppler told the AJC.
For every college team and athlete whose seasons have been prematurely shut down in recent days, the anguish of relinquishing dreams and aspirations has been painful. At Tech, Heppler’s team had the most to lose. Consistently the best team on campus, these Yellow Jackets harbored legitimate national championship hopes, anchored by U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree.
“I fully believe we were going to (win the NCAA title),” Heppler said in a highly atypical public declaration of confidence. “Not that we’re much better than everybody else. I just think they had the mindset that we were going to.”
Heppler had the pieces, certainly. Besides Ogletree, reigning champion of the world’s most prestigious amateur tournament, Heppler had two other decorated seniors pulling the sled. Luke Schniederjans, a three-time All-ACC selection, and Tyler Strafaci, a two-time All-ACC pick and a past qualifier for the U.S. Open, were the other two.
The Jackets were ranked No. 3 in the coaches poll and seventh by Golfstat. Their four tournament wins were tied for the most nationally. Tech was bolstered by Ogletree’s decision to pass on invitations to play in multiple PGA Tour events – honors for being the U.S. Amateur champion – in order to compete with his team.
“It’s been about his two senior friends (Schniederjans and Strafaci) and the program,” Heppler said. “I can do nothing but salute him for his loyalty.”
The idea was to generate confidence and perhaps fear as the postseason approached.
“It’s momentum, it’s belief, and so we just felt that the more we won with him in the lineup, the better,” Heppler said. “Sometimes, you get out of the van and people start thinking they can’t beat you.”
Since Heppler’s hire in 1995, Tech has been unquestionably elite. The Jackets have finished in the top eight at the NCAA championship 11 times – three times the runner-up – won or shared the ACC championship 13 times and produced three national players of the year. The only prize that has eluded Tech is the national championship. Again, Tech was positioned to take a strong run, and Ogletree, Schniederjans and Strafaci were singularly focused on finishing the season at the top, as evidenced by Ogletree’s decision to sacrifice the PGA Tour invites to be with the team.
“I don’t think anybody wins that without a little bit of good fortunate, but maybe this was the time that we were going to get a little good fortune,” Heppler said. “As far as physical ability and mental ability and approach, the skillset, there was no doubt we could win the tournament.”
Then came last Thursday. After the ACC’s decision to suspend competition and practice, Heppler called a meeting at the team’s practice facility. But just as Heppler arrived to address the team, another bomb dropped – the NCAA was canceling its spring championships.
Players were learning the news just before Heppler walked through the door.
“Just disbelief,” Heppler said. “They didn’t say very much.”
Heppler went from helping his team figure out how to make it through the hiatus to telling them how sorry he was that their dreams were, at the very least, deferred. A few players shed tears.
“Guys don’t want to be vulnerable – you know that,” Heppler said. “But sometimes, you can’t help it. When you’ve invested all that into it, it’s hard to walk away. You just go, ‘Wow, I’ve been doing this every day waiting for this spring,’ and so it’s tough.”
The pain was even greater for Ogletree, who was to tee it up at the Masters, only to see that tournament get postponed, as well. It won’t be a surprise if the U.S. Open and British Open, events that he can also play, are also postponed or canceled.
“That was really hard,” Heppler said of the Masters postponement. “It’s just kind of, there’s things in life, you just don’t believe are going to happen.”
Heppler’s senior trio will now face a decision on whether to return for a second try at a senior season – the NCAA will offer additional eligibility to spring-sports athletes – and postpone turning professional for a year. They may have to make a decision not knowing what their options will be with playing their way onto any of the professional tours, given that those circuits are suspended.
They’ll have to decide whether another year of the academic grind at Tech is worth it, whether their hearts are still in it as their professional aspirations beckon.
“Maybe you’ve just had enough,” Heppler said. “I get that.”
Ogletree has already made his decision, telling the AJC’s Steve Hummer Tuesday that he will not return upon his scheduled graduation in May.
“Obviously, there is going to be a new rule where you could possibly come back, but I’m not going to do that,” Ogletree said. “For me, this is it and it kind of sucks to go out this way when we had a great chance to win the national championship, I think.”
Heppler often tries to shape his players’ attitudes and thinking by challenging them to focus their energy and attention on what they can control.
“But this is kind of a master’s degree, I guess, in that thought process,” Heppler said.
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