By Doug Gorman
Clayton State University golf coach Barry Harwell knew his Laker squad had arrived earlier this fall when he was walking through the lobby of the team hotel at the Aflac Cougar Invitational in Columbus.
Harwell overheard an obviously upset opposing coach yelling at his team with the words, "even Clayton State is kicking our tails."
Although the mystery coach didn't know it, his statement about the Lakers' program was almost prophetic.
The Lakers used to be one of the laughing stocks of Division II golf.
That's no longer the case.
At that same tournament where Harwell heard the insults about his team, the Lakers' Wil Wilcox rolled to a three-shot, 9-under par victory. Overall, the Lakers finished seventh in the fall event.
Earlier during the fall season, Clayton State won the Orchard Fall Invitational as Wilcox fired a 69 en route to the win.
The fall campaign set the tone for what has become the best spring season in Clayton State history.
Among the highlights this spring was a team victory in the Southernbridge Pirate Invitational hosted by Armstrong Atlantic University in Savannah.
Again, Wilcox led the way, finishing seven under par for the two-round event.
The junior's stellar performance on the links has put him on the watch list for the Jack Nicklaus Division II Player of the Year Award.
Harwell's club has caught the attention of the rest of the golfing world, and they are currently ranked 20th in the NCAA Division II national poll.
They are also in good shape to earn a spot in the NCAA Regional Tournament with a No. 5 ranking in the regional poll. The top eight teams from each region earn a bid to the postseason tournament.
Wilcox says it's a special time to be part of Clayton State's growing golf program.
"We have played really good team golf," Wilcox said. "This season has really been fun, we won that tournament in Savannah which was really great, and our goal at the start of the season was to go to regionals, and it looks like we are going to get to do that."
Before the Lakers can think about any postseason honors that might come their way, their first thoughts are on putting together a solid run at next week's Peach Bet Conference Tournament.
The event runs next Monday and Tuesday at the Hounds Lake County Club in Aiken South Carolina.
The only Peach Belt Conference team the Lakers haven't defeated is Aiken, so Harwell is looking for some big things out of his team next week.
"If we can go up there and shoot our averages, and maybe have a couple of good individual rounds, I think we could get out of there with a third or fourth-place finish, and that would be a big jump. I'm not saying we don't have a chance to win, because you always do."
Wade Binfield, who played high school golf at Our Lady of Mercy in Fayette County, transferred in to the program this year and is glad to be a part of the nationally-ranked team.
"It's definitely a new experience being part of this team," Binfield said. "Clayton State was ranked like 82nd when coach (Harwell came in last year), and he brings Wil in, and he brings in a couple of other guys and things just started to click. Hopefully, we can do it at conference."
Clayton State will try to chase down Aiken, Georgia College and Columbus, who is coached by Mark Immelman, brother of Masters champion Trevor Immelman at next week's Peach Belt Conference Tournament.
The Lakers are hoping for a bid to the NCAA Southeast Regionals May 5-7 at Point Golf Club at Lake Norman. This year's NCAA Division II National Champions will be held in Houston the following week.