BERKELEY, CA. - With a strong 1997 campaign and an NCAA Western Regional berth behind them, the 1998 Golden Bears entered this season primed for success and have exceeded early expectations. In a sport where winning one tournament can make a team's year, Cal opened the 1997-98 campaign as one of the hottest squads in all of collegiate golf as the Golden Bears brought home titles in two of the three competitions they entered. With those achievements now under their belts, head coach Steve Desimone and his Bears have set their sights high for 1998 as Cal looks to carry its early season success into both the Pacific-10 Conference championship and the NCAAs.
"I don't think there's any question that we have high expectations for this year," said Desimone, who is in his 19th year at the helm. "We know how hard we've worked and how far we've come. We also know that we have a great team. And its my belief that we'll be competing for the national championship in New Mexico."
Despite its youthful makeup, Cal will be fielding one of the deepest squads to ever grace the links in blue and gold. And though the Bears do not have a senior on their roster, Desimone considers this battle-tested group to be among the most talented teams he has coach during his tenure at Cal.
"Even though we have no seniors, we still have one of the most experienced teams in the Pac-10 conference," Desimone said. "We've had some great teams in the past here at Cal, but we've never had the overall depth, balance and experience that this team has. I really believe that this team, at full strength, is definitely one of the favorites to win the Pac-10 championship. It also has an excellent chance to make a strong showing in the NCAA championships, both the Western Regionals and the final."
The depth and experience of which Desimone speaks is evident in the Bears 11-man roster which includes eight golfers who possess starting experience at the Division I level and four, Dong Yi, Jay Berkowitz, Dan Arroyo and Dan Coyle, who started every tournament for the Bears last season.
"We are fortunate to have four great national players in Dong Yi, Jay Berkowitz, Dan Arroyo and Dan Coyle," said Desimone. "In my opinion, that group is as solid a top four as there is."
Leading the Bears in 1998 is one of college golf's top players, Yi. A sophomore from nearby Alameda, Yi was a second team All-Pac-10 selection a year ago. The only freshman in the conference to receive postseason honors, Yi served notice on the collegiate golf community that he would be a force to be reckoned with right out of the gate, placing third at the Wolf Pack Invitational and fourth at the USF Invitational during the fall. Yi's hot play carried over to the spring where continued to be the Bears most consistent player, posting a team-low 73.8 stroke average over 24 rounds of competition. He also registered two more Top 10 finishes with a ninth at the Pac-10 Championship and a sixth at the U.S. Intercollegiate. Yi solidified his place among college golf's elite with three more consistent tournaments this fall, including his best as a collegian, a sizzling 8-under-par three round total of 208 to finish in fourth place at the Pacific Invitational.
"Dong really doesn't have any weaknesses," said Desimone of his stellar sophomore. "He's very mature for someone in only their second year of collegiate competition. He hits it very long and has great touch. But most of all, he knows how to play the game. Dong, like all great players, loves to compete. And when you add his level of skill to his competitive instincts you get a great player."
Of great concern for the Bears at the end of the fall was a wrist injury sustained by Yi that worsened as the fall came to an end. The long term outlook is in question, but it is clear that Yi's contributions have been a critical factor in the Bears success to this point in the season.
"Watching Dong and the team struggle at Oregon State was difficult," said Desimone. "If Dong cannot return, it most certainly will have an impact on our lineup, but we some guys who can play and are ready to go."
Berkowitz, a junior, was second on the squad last spring with a 74.3 average. This year's team captain, Berkowitz registered four Top 10 finishes during the 1996-97 campaign, including a fifth at the Falcon Invitational and a second place at the Western Intercollegiate where he shot 2-under 216. This fall, Berkowitz picked up right where he left off with a solid seventh place finish at the Falcon Invitational.
"Jay is just a great player," Desimone said. "He is very long off the tee and has shown a lot of improvement in his short game. If he can continue to improve his putting, there's no doubt he can become one of college golf's top national players."
Cal's No. 3 man a year ago was Dan Arroyo. A transfer from Minnesota where he was in the lineup most of his freshman year, Arroyo's experience paid big for the Bears last season as he appeared in all but one tournament and posted a 74.9 stroke average during the spring. After recording two Top 20 finishes last season, Arroyo began to hit his stride during the fall where his best outing came at the Pacific Invitational as he shot an outstanding three round total of 7-under 209 to finished tied for fifth place.
"Dan is arguably the longest player we have on the team," Desimone said. "He has become more accurate with his driver and is keeping the ball in play on a much more consistent basis this year. He has the ability to really take golf courses apart with his length."
The last of Desimone's fab four is junior Dan Coyle. In only his first season of collegiate golf a year ago, Coyle saw action in all eight spring tournaments, registering a 76.3 stroke average. A technically excellent golfer, Coyle's best outing came at the Western Intercollegiate where he finished in 22nd place. This fall, Coyle finally put it all together and showed why he was considered one of Ireland's top juniors shooting a team-best 4-under 212 at the Falcon Invitational to finish second overall.
"Dan has one of the largest array of shots I've ever seen in a competitor at this level," Desimone said. "He also brings a lot of international experience with him, which gives him a sense of competition that is different than anyone else on our team. The confidence and maturity that he brings to the game has rubbed off on a number of the other guys and made us better as a team."
A talented trio of golfers in freshman Adam Ainbinder, sophomore Han Lee and junior Josh Levin should all compete strongly for the final slot in the Bears lineup. Despite his age, Ainbinder is a mature and polished golfer. In his only tournament appearance during the fall, Ainbinder posted a solid 229 at the Falcon Invitational. Lee, a redshirt sophomore got two starts during the fall, averaging 74.8 strokes over six rounds. Levin, who is a junior transfer from the University of San Francisco, has yet to take to the links for the Bears but brings an impressive resume with him to Cal. A two-time All-West Coast Conference selection, Levin played in the Dons No. 1 position both seasons and had his best finish as a sophomore at the WCC tournament where he came in third place.
"The fifth position in our lineup will probably rotate between who's hot in qualifying," said Desimone. "Heading into the spring, Han Lee, Adam Ainbinder and Josh Levin have the inside track. Each of those three has the skills to push the top 4."
The remaining players, Steve Farris, who played at the Pac-10s for Cal as a freshman, and freshmen Walter Chun and Craig Wolfman, will look to continue improving their games throughout the year with sights set on the future.
Cal will once again play a competitive schedule as the Bears will get a chance to test their mettle against the some of the nation's top teams. The focal point of the year, however, will come April 26-29 when Cal hosts the Pac-10 Championship at the Orinda Country Club.
"One of the highlights of the season will clearly be hosting the Pac-10 Championship at the Orinda Country Club," Desimone said. "It's an event that the entire community is already getting behind. As far as our chances, I don't think we'll take a back seat to anybody in our conference, especially since Orinda Country Club is one of our home courses."
Whether or not the Bears can measure to Desimone's expectations will depend on a lot of different factors, primarily staying healthy as Yi (wrist) and Berkowitz (back) both finished the fall season with serious injuries. Clearly the disappointing finish at Oregon State was a direct result of these injury factors. Yi's problem appears to be the most serious with a season-ending situation a distinct possibility. At press time, a recent recurrence of Yi's wrist injury appears to have ended his season, with the hope of regaining this year as a medical redshirt. For Berkowitz, signs are encouraging. His play is better than ever. With Yi out of the lineup, expectations may change somewhat. However, this is a deep and talented team and NCAA Championship play remains the number one goal.