ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Winning a national championship is rarely easy. But as Lee University junior Connor Pollman stood on the 18th green at TPC Michigan on Friday afternoon, his par putt a mere eight feet from the hole and his Oklahoma Christian opponent's par putt some 40 feet away, he was feeling pretty good about winning his match and all but locking up the Flames' first NCAA Division II national title.

Then Mateo Pulcini's putt somehow found gold. Now, if Pollman didn't hit his putt, the match would be tied and Lee's victory far less certain.

"I'd never felt pressure like that in my life," Pollman said Sunday afternoon. "The putt broke right to left. It was downhill. My heart was going as fast as it could go. I hit it, but I was afraid I didn't hit it hard enough."

Then it dropped.

Former Baylor School golfer and Lee teammate Dalton Chuba was standing on the edge of the green as Pollman struck his putt.

"It was 85 degrees out there, and when that putt dropped, I felt chills all over my body," Chuba said. "It instantly felt like it was freezing. It was like everything stopped."

Added Pollman: "All my emotions came out. I was screaming, so excited. Lots of tears of joys. Lots of hugging. We got to the quarterfinals last year. It kind of stung. We told ourselves we'd come back here again. I'm so proud of these guys. We're so close, like family, and we did it."

It takes a team, almost always a close team, to win a national title, and the Flames were far more than Pollman, Chuba, grad assistant Evan Spence — Pollman's closest friend — and coach John Maupin, who's been in charge of the program for the past 14 years.

Dustin DeMersseman delivered a 3-under-par round of 69 to win his match by 10 strokes. Oliver Lewis-Perkins, a native of England, went 3-0 in match play, his final victory on Friday sealing the national title. Lee's No. 1 player all season, Beck Burnette, earned a one-stroke win in the final match. Chuba lost his final-round pairing but won a crucial semifinal.

"It's still a pretty surreal feeling," Maupin said Sunday evening. "I've pretty much been on the road the last three weeks. Never done so much laundry at hotels. So many people have helped us get to this point, so much terrific support here at Lee, beginning with (athletic director) Larry Carpenter. Just so happy for these guys. I'll say it again, they bought in with all their heart to our motto of tough, calm and closers."

There is always luck involved in such moments. Who gets hurt and who doesn't. Who becomes better than expected. What opponent sags instead of surges.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on NCAA eligibility, Pollman is only a junior, but in his fifth year of school. He's already graduated with a business management degree and is now working on his master's in business administration.

Then there's Chuba, who had spent his whole life on a baseball diamond before he began to feel "burned out" on the sport while playing behind the gifted Cooper Kinney at Baylor — Kinney signed with the Tampa Bay Rays last summer for $2.1 million — and decided to switch to golf.

"I was playing at Valleybrook one day," Chuba said, "and David 'Daisy' McKenna came over to me and said, 'You have a talent for this game if you'll keep working at it.'"

Those words from the late, great McKenna carried weight, and Chuba spent a postgrad semester in the fall of 2020 at the International Junior Golf Academy in Florida, where he roomed with John Daly II, the son of the two-time major champion.

"We played golf 10 hours a day," Chuba said. "You'd work with mental coaches. It really made a difference."

After spending last spring at Cleveland State, he joined the Flames this season, when his stroke average was 73.4.

Said Maupin of Chuba's play at TPC Michigan: "Dalton, for being just a freshman, never backed down. He's not afraid of this stage, and we needed him this week."

Believing they might need inspiration at the start of the season, they named their group chat "2022 national champions." Said Chuba of that decision: "If you get five guys who really believe in something, it can become really scary."

Believing he might need an extra edge on the greens during the tournament, Pollman switched to an Odyssey 7 putter a month ago, then heard his good friend Spence, the former McCallie star, tell him this on 18: "Let's get this done."

That it all got done so perfectly in Dearborn, Michigan — some 587 miles away from Lee's campus in Cleveland, Tennessee — caused Maupin to throw financial caution to the wind and treat his team to a victory dinner at a pricey Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in nearby Ann Arbor.

"We put the phones away, just soaked it all in, one of the best moments of my life as a coach," he said.

As for the hefty bill attached to all those filets, key lime pies and white chocolate bread puddings, Maupin said: "I figured if there was ever a time you could turn a bill like that in, it was after you've won a national championship."

Of course, he also said: "I might become the first coach to win a national championship and get fired for the dinner receipt."

Yet for Pollman, it wasn't so much the dinner or the title as the past three weeks chasing it with his teammates that these Flames will never let die.

"We could have lost and gone to McDonald's, and it would have still been great," he said. "I'll remember this season with these guys forever."

some text
Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT