With four freshmen in the starting five on his 2011 University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo men’s golf team, Coach Earl Tamiya thought the Vulcans might reach the national championships in another two years.
Freshman golfer Blake Snyder envisioned conference titles and trips to nationals as possibilities down the line in his collegiate career.
In retrospect, Tamiya says the team, while lean on collegiate experience, was smart, willing to attack the course and embodied the desire to win. Which helped the Vulcans win the 2011 Pacific West Conference title and cap off the season with a trip to the NCAA Division II National Championships.
It was a gratifying performance to Tamiya. Retirement nearing after two decades as head coach, he wanted another trip to college golf’s biggest stage. And it was thrilling for the players.
“I don’t think we had anything to lose,” says Seattle native Snyder, who won the Pacific West individual title. “People didn’t expect us to go to nationals, win the PacWest. We shocked everyone like coach said, so that was cool.”
Hilo qualified for the Division II Championships for the first time since 2005 with a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Central/West Regional. The May trip to the national championships in Florence, Ala., was about as far as Honolulu freshman Corey Kozuma has ever traveled.
“It was an awesome experience,” he says. “That’s what you work so hard for the entire year, just to make it there. To be there with the guys and soak everything in, it was awesome.”
He describes the season as a bit of a rollercoaster, with a good start and some struggles in the middle. The Vulcans won the league title in April 2011 by just one stroke. Snyder won the individual title by three strokes and was the only player to finish under par. Travis Russell tied for 7th place, Neil Cabico finished 13th, Kozuma 15th and Chris Shimomura tied for 16th. All were freshmen except Cabico, a former walk-on from Lānaʻi who had three top-10 finishes in his senior season.
“We came together toward the end and played a lot better,” Kozuma recalls. “There was one trip where we had a little break in between tournaments and the five of us really got to just bond. You live with the guys, practice with them, do everything together. It really brings us together, we support each other and it came out well at the end.”
It was a heady experience for a freshman. One stroke behind the leader after the second round, Kozuma looked up to see his picture on the course’s electronic scoreboard as it flashed the list of top performers.
“The kids are young, most haven’t experienced this big-time play,” Tamiya says. “Corey Kozuma, he was in the hunt, he told me ‘ho coach, I looked up and there was my picture on the Jumbotron.’ That was the kind of experience they never had before. It was very exciting.”
Kozuma was a seasoned competitor in junior golf, but the stakes had never been this high. He was nervous, had trouble sleeping, woke up early before his final round and spent the morning trying to calm down.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking. I was up there, had a chance to win and had a chance to help the team make it to match play,” he recalls. He dropped back after the third round and finished in 28th place. The team was leading after the first nine holes of the first round. The winds picked up, and the Vulcans dropped behind, finishing 11th in the team competition and missing by eight strokes the opportunity to advance and play for the national title.
It was a disappointing finish to a season that exceeded all expectations. Still, it fuels hope for the future.
“We were disappointed that we didn’t get to make it to match play,” Kozuma says. “At the same time, we had to be honest with ourselves. A lot of people didn’t think we’d make it that far considering how young our team is. You can’t complain how the season went. Even though we didn’t make it to match play, it shows great promise for coming years.”
Tamiya credits the Big Island community for helping his team’s success. The Vulcans fundraise in order to travel to tournaments with top teams, and local golf courses have welcomed the team. Hilo also hosts an annual tournament with some of the top Division I teams.
Snyder is spending the summer playing tournament after tournament, envisioning success ahead. “I’d like to keep winning, keep winning, keep winning, and I want to win national as a team and individually,” he says. “Those are my goals.”