Head Coach: Brett Muller (6th year)
2015-16 GPAC Finish: 6th (354-348-379-348–1,429)
Key Returners: Amy Ahlers (Sr.); Emma Jacoby (Jr.).
Key Newcomers: Paighton Barbre; Payton DeMers-Sahling; Murphy Sears.
Key Losses: Brenna Gnuse; Kayla Krueger; Ashlen Pospisil.
2016 GPAC All-Conference: Amy Ahlers (3rd); Kayla Krueger (12th).
Following a season of record-breaking performances, the Concordia golf programs both bring back several established star performers from their 2015-16 teams. Most prominent among them is senior Amy Ahlers, a contender for the GPAC title heading into her senior year. On the men’s side, Nolan Zikas emerged as the team’s most compelling story during an incredible spring run as a freshman.
Ahlers and Zikas will almost assuredly be part of their respective teams’ top five throughout 2016-17, but competition will be fierce for the final spots in the lineup. Every year it’s gotten more difficult to earn a spot in that top five. There’s now a good mix of young and old.
“We do have our top five back on the men’s side and we’re bringing in some freshmen as well,” said sixth-year head coach Brett Muller. “Experience is a big deal. We’re playing longer and tougher golf courses than the guys did in high school. Our practices are becoming more competitive with having more guys in the mix. They know they have to play well in practice to keep their spots.”
The women will feature a particularly potent top three with Ahlers, junior Emma Jacoby and freshman Murphy Sears. No Concordia women’s golfer in school history has enjoyed a more successful run than Ahlers, who last season broke the program record for lowest single-season average. She’s been an all-conference performer each of her first three years while placing inside the top 10 of 23 tournaments during her career.
Ahlers turned down Dakota Wesleyan, a GPAC power in women’s golf, to come to Concordia. It’s hard to understate her importance to the program.
“Amy’s been a big lift for the program,” Muller said. “She’s definitely one of the favorites to win the (GPAC) women’s event this year on the individual side. She’s gotten better every year. That’s because she puts in the extra time. She plays a ton of golf in the summer. She shows up early to practice and stays late. She’s doing all the right things to take her game to the next level.”
Ahlers is a given at the top of Concordia’s lineup. A return to form for Jacoby would be a huge boost for the program. The Lincoln native missed the spring season due to a shoulder injury but has bounced back strong in practice this fall. She placed seventh in the conference as a freshman following a stellar high school career at Lincoln North Star. Said Jacoby, “I think I’m getting close. A lot of it is mental – just remembering how to go out there and play well, having a good mental game and making sure my swing is under control. I don’t want to have to think about it too much out there.”
Then there’s Sears, a product of Crete High School. Muller believes she will rival Ahlers and Jacoby at the top of the lineup while competing for a lofty spot on the GPAC leaderboard. With Kayla Krueger’s departure, the addition of Sears takes on added importance. She’s the ringleader for a class of three freshmen.
Coming up with a reliable No. 4 option could decide exactly what heights Concordia women’s golf reaches in 2016-17.
“I think we can accomplish a lot,” Jacoby said. “Even though we do have some losses, I think Amy has worked really hard this summer. She’s playing well as usual. If I can get back in it and play well I think we can definitely move up the conference. That’s our goal. We had a couple wins last year which was awesome.”
Everyone from last season’s top five is back in the fold for the Bulldog men. Other than two tough outings at GPAC qualifiers Nos. 1 and 2, Reid Wiebe put together a rock-solid junior year. He topped Concordia with a team low season average of 76.4. Zikas then stole the show during the spring when he tied for first at both the third and fourth conference qualifier rounds. All the while, Zikas has continued his fight against bone cancer.
The native of La Vista, Neb., is an inspiration to say the least.
“The thing about Nolan is he’s a great kid outside of golf,” said senior Jared Knoepfel. “He’s totally relatable, which is tough for a person in that situation. To keep a good attitude like he does is inspiring obviously. He and I have had plenty of conversations about faith and about school and furthering those two things. He’s creating a foundation with those two things and golf is coming along with it.”
Knoepfel, who has played in 38 career rounds as a Bulldog, joins Wiebe, Zikas and juniors Tyler Ehresman and Russell Otten as experienced and proven returners. All five were part of the Concordia lineup that set a new single-round school standard of 291 at the Briar Cliff Mini-Tour Stop.
They will be pushed by a freshman group of five that includes Matthew Bruce, Alec Hansen, Tyler Knoepfel, Noah Rohlfing and Tylar Samek. It’s saying something for anyone who can become a regular on this Bulldog team.
“Coming here freshman year there was competition for the top five, but it wasn’t where we are now,” Jared Knoepfel said. “That’s something in recruiting that Coach has put effort into. He’s got people in here that have made practice more competitive. When you have competitive practices all year, you’re going to start getting results.”
Concordia hopes the final results indicate improvement from last season’s GPAC finishes of sixth and seventh place, respectively. In order to move up among their conference rivals, the Bulldogs will have to acclimate to a new GPAC championship format for 2016-17. Instead of playing four separate, 18-hole qualifiers, the conference will shift to a pair of two-day meets, one in the fall and one in the spring, that will place the men and women at the same site. Muller and his players have all expressed support for the change.
“I’m very excited about the new format with two neutral sites for 36-hole events with men’s and women’s teams on same courses,” Muller said. “It gives us the opportunity to find nicer golf courses than we’ve played in the past. It will really even the playing field. There won’t be a home course advantage. It’s such an advantage if you can host GPAC 3 or GPAC 4 late in the season to give you a push. I think it’s better for everybody. With having all men’s and women’s teams on the course together I think it will make it feel like more of a big time event.”
SEASON OPENS THURSDAY: Both Concordia golf programs tee off their 2016-17 seasons this Thursday and Friday at the Mount Marty Invite. Day one will take place at Fox Run Golf Course before shifting to Hillcrest Country Club for the second and final day. Both courses are located in Yankton, S.D.