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Bison golf no longer that other minor sport at NDSU

Natalie Roth is off to a strong start with a win and a runner-up finish to begin the season and lead the Bison women to back-to-back tournament victories. Kelly Gorham/Montana State University

The North Dakota State men's team was walking through an airport during a flight connection recently when somebody asked about the players. The prevailing thought had to be why is a basketball team traveling this early in the season?

Nope, think again.

It was the NDSU golf team. The Bison roster doesn't list heights but there's some size to the group like 6-foot-8 freshman Van Holmgren. There's also some talent to the group, too, with the Bison winning their first two tournaments of the season—the first time in program history an NDSU golf team has won two straight events.

Men's golf: Just that minor sport that doesn't win much?

Nope, think again.

"I feel like a lot of our programs play with a chip on our shoulder because we're considered the mid-major small school but we want to show up at the big moments," said sophomore Andrew Israelson.

Israelson is a former Minnesota high school state champion at Staples-Motley. Holmgren was last year's Minnesota Class 3A state champ at Wayzata High School. His older brother by two years, Will Holmgren, played on two state title teams. Freshman Lucas Johnson was on two North Dakota high school state championship teams at Fargo Shanley.

Senior Nick Myhre led Rolette to a North Dakota Class B title. Freshman Ben Epperly, who is redshirting, was the Iowa Class 4A individual champ. Get the picture?

"I feel like we're getting the right-type of players in here," said head coach Steve Kennedy.

So are the Bison women, which also won their first two tournaments. They claimed the Battle at Old Works Team Championship in Anaconda, Mont., earlier this week, besting a field that included California teams CSU Fullerton, CSU Northridge and Santa Clara.

Senior Natalie Roth from Detroit Lakes, Minn., took second, finishing 1-under par for the three-day tourney. She was the medalist last week when the Bison won the UNO Invitational in Omaha, Neb., beating a field that included the University of Nebraska and former high school teammate Kate Smith.

"Winning as a team is the best feeling as a college athlete," Roth said. "Having your teammates being as happy as you are, there is nothing sweeter. We've put a lot of time in and the results are because of the work we've done at home. I'm happy that it's coming around pretty early in the season but there's still a lot of season left to go and there are no plans of settling down."

Roth's scores are in the neighborhood of what LPGA and former Bison player Amy (Anderson) Olson used to shoot. Women's head coach Matt Johnson said Roth is "on par" of where Olson was when she was at NDSU.

The Bison won a Summit League title with Olson leading the charge. This team appears deeper, however, with the win in Montana setting a program team record for 54 holes with a 14-over par 878. The top four of five player scores count in the team standings and the Bison actually had to throw out a 73 one day.

"Amy set the bar high and we're all striving to achieve what she achieved in her career," Roth said.

Kennedy is in his fifth year of trying to raise the men's bar to a conference-title level. NDSU finished fifth last year, but only seven strokes out of first place in a balanced tournament. He took Fargo South High School to dynasty-type levels in North Dakota before taking the Bison job and is trying to build the this program in the same fashion.

Certainly, being fully-funded with the NCAA-maximum 4.5 scholarships is a big boost. Kennedy had two scholarships to work with when he first got the NDSU job. And the facilities have taken a dramatic turn for the better with the indoor bubble over Dacotah Field in the winter and a locker room and a yet-to-be-built short-game facility at the new Sanford Health Athletic Complex.

"I'd say the success of the entire NDSU athletics program is what brought me here," Van Holmgren said. "Our practice facilities, workout regiments, nutrition center—they're on another level. I had my eyes set on NDSU since my brother spoke so highly of it and it's a for-sure setting for me to grow my game at."

A sign of growth came over the summer on the amateur tourney circuit. The Bison men were consistently hanging with Big Ten Conference talent, liking going toe-to-toe with the University of Minnesota players at the Pine to Palm in Detroit Lakes.

"We were if not ahead of them right with them," Kennedy said.

Jeff Kolpack
Jeff Kolpack covers North Dakota State athletics, the Fargo Marathon and golf for The Forum. His blog can be accessed at www.bisonmedia.areavoices.com. On the radio, Kolpack & Izzo sports talk show runs from 9-11 a.m. every Saturday morning. April through August, the WDAY Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack runs from 8-9 a.m.
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