WINONA LAKE – Grace’s men’s golf team enjoyed a successful season last year under head coach Denny Hepler.
In 2017-18, Hepler’s Lancers hope to replicate that success with a young but experienced roster.
The Lancers reached the NCCAA National Championships last season for the first time in 17 years. Grace went on to finish fourth in the national tournament.
To return to nationals, Grace will need to replace the void left by graduated seniors Jonathan Schram, Tyler Ham and Zachary Allyn. Hepler acknowledged the young team may experience a learning curve at the start of the season.
“We will be very young this year with no seniors,” Helper said. “We’re also starting the year with a couple injuries, so we’re going to be a little thin starting out. But we trust our returners and look forward to seeing our new guys step up.”
Despite their youth, Grace still has the goal of returning to the NCCAA tournament. “We will be hosting the NCCAA regional qualifier, and of course our goal is to get to the national championship like we did last year,” Hepler said.
Hepler will rely on returning juniors Chad Spencer and Cameron Bates to be the team captains and lead the rest of the squad. Grace also expects a large contribution from sophomore Tristan Nienhuis.
Nienhuis made an impact immediately as a freshman, routinely finding himself near the top of Grace’s leaderboard. Hepler praised Nienhuis’s attitude on and off the course. “He has a tremendous work ethic and leads the team in that category.”
Nienhuis earned All-American honors as a freshman at the NCCAA National Championships in 2016. Bates also had one of his best career performances at last year’s NCCAA Nationals, as he finished one stroke shy of earning All-American recognition.
Spencer’s most notable outing last season came at the IU-South Bend Invitational where he finished fifth overall.
The Lancers have three incoming freshmen to help replace last year’s seniors. Tim Rata is a local standout from Warsaw, helping lead the Tigers to a sectional championship in 2017 on his way to earning All-Conference recognition. Isaiah Brown led Fairfield to sectional championships in 2016 and 2017. Camden Gongwer is an All-County golfer who aided Avon to a county title his senior year.
Jacob Kennedy and Max Leary round out the returnees for Grace. Both will be entering their sophomore year with tournament experience. Leary competed in the Crossroads League Championships in 2017.
Grace will open up the season at the Lancer Invitational on Aug. 22. The tournament tees off at 3 p.m. at Stonehenge Golf Club.