May 20, 2014

Miller helps Mariners to NAIA title

The College of Coastal Georgia men’s golf team has won several tournaments since the inception of the program four years ago.

In that time, the Mariners have become one of the premier teams in the country, and now they are truly the best of the best after winning the biggest tournament of them all this week.

On Friday, fourth-ranked Coastal Georgia claimed the NAIA national championship with a come-from-behind victory in the three-round national tournament on the Jones Course at LPGA International.

“To do what we’ve done in four years is just amazing,” said Coastal Georgia coach Mike Cook.

The national championship was not only the first for the men’s golf team, but it was also the first by any Coastal Georgia team in school history.

The Mariners previously competed in the National Junior College Athletic Association for many years with a limited number of teams before expanding the overall athletic program and moving into the four-year ranks just three years ago.

The men’s golf program started in 2011 and played at the junior-college level its first season, making the NJCAA national tournament and finishing fourth that year.

Now, the Mariners are the national champs.

“We made history today,” said senior Chase Miller, a Dalton High graduate who was part of the school’s initial golf team. “It’s our first national championship and Coastal Georgia’s first national championship. To be on the first national championship team is a heckuva feeling. It’s a cool feeling.”

Obviously, the triumph on Friday produced plenty of hugs, handshakes and high-fives among the players, coaches and fans of the team including parents and friends who were there to support the team and witness the Mariners’ march to the national title.

“It’s been our goal since the beginning,” said junior Hunter Cornelius, who joined the Coastal Georgia program in time for the first season competing at the four-year level. “It’s something we’ve talked about, but we still had to go do it. Today is probably the proudest moment in my life so far.”

Starting the final round on Friday in third place, the Mariners overcame a six-stroke deficit and pulled away from the field to stake claim to the national crown.

They ended up shooting a 4-under-par 284 over the closing 18 for a three-round total of 1-over 865. Coastal Georgia was the only team to shoot under par on Friday and its score was the best of the day by four strokes.

Oklahoma City, the two-time defending national champion, shot even-par 288 on Friday to finish four shots behind the Mariners at 869 for the tournament. The teams were tied for third going into Friday.

The Stars have won an NAIA-best nine championships, winning all of them in the last 13 years. Last year, they won the championship by a whopping 28 shots.

The championship was especially sweet for the two seniors on Coastal Georgia’s team, Dylan Freeman and Miller both helped the program get started and led the team’s quick rise to become national champions.

“We couldn’t have put this together and gotten this done without them,” Cook said.

Miller got the Mariners going in the right direction last week on Monday when he won the long drive competition during the practice round on the eve of the tournament’s opening round. He closed the week with a clutch 2-under 70 score on Friday, which was the second-lowest round among the Coastal Georgia players behind the team-best 69 score by junior Allen Bradford.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Miller said. “I wish I could stay and win more national championships, but one is better than none, I guess. But this is very emotional for us. Dylan and I have been with each other from the beginning, and finishing out like this is a great feeling. He’s a heckuva player and a heckuva guy, too.”

Freeman, who has enjoyed a decorated collegiate career with the Mariners that includes six wins and three Coastal Georgia Men’s Student-Athlete of the Year Awards, was quick to point out that winning the national championship with his team is the most meaningful accomplishment of all.

“Absolutely, this is the brightest moment from my time at Coastal Georgia,” said Freeman, who shot 73 on Friday. “I’m just so happy we pulled together as a team like I knew we could.”

Their Coastal Georgia teammates were happy to send the two seniors out with the biggest win in their careers, too.

“Let them go out with a bang,” said Cornelius, who shot 74 in Friday’s round. “They’ve worked hard for this. They’ve led the team for four years and led us again here today. It’s the best way to send them off.”

 Bradford echoed those sentiments.

“Winning for them was a big part of our motivation,” he said. “They’ve been on the team for four years. I hate to see them leave, but it’s good for them to go out winning the national championship.”

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