Flames golf team named CUSA champion in first year in conference

The Liberty University Flames golf team put its best foot forward on the fairway as it claimed its eighth conference title at the 2024 Conference USA Golf Championship.

Though the Flames have seven previous conference champion titles under their belt, this was their first-ever appearance in a CUSA Championship. The championship took place April 22-25 at the Texarkana Country Club in Arkansas as the Flames faced off against seven other schools.

“We knew we were one of the better teams going into the championship, but when you’re playing match play, anything can happen,” Head Coach Jeff Thomas said. “Our main goal was just to make it to match play, and then we just had to trust that our guys could beat their guys in a head-to-head match. Going into the conference, we were just trying to get better individually and then hopefully, that would translate into some good scores and our ability to win … our match play events.”

The champion of the conference was determined using match play scoring, a system in which the winner is determined by the number of holes won rather than the strokes accumulated. This is the first time the Flames have played in a conference championship using this scoring system.

“This conference was different in the point that we played match play instead of stroke play,” Thomas said. “The disadvantage of match play is that anybody can win it at any time because it’s 18 holes, so it’s not as long of a stretch, and you’re just playing against one team. The advantage is that you break to four teams. So, we play three rounds of stroke play, and then that breaks down to four teams going into match play, so you just do a No. 1 versus No. 4 seed, and then No. 2 versus No. 3, and then the winners.”

The championship began Monday morning with a slow start for the Flames as they finished the day ranked third, behind Middle Tennessee State and Louisiana Tech. LA Tech maintained its first-place lead on Tuesday, but by the conclusion of day two, Liberty had risen in the ranks to second place.

The Flames beat UTEP in the final round to claim the trophy. | Photo Provided

Each team fought hard on Wednesday to secure a spot in Thursday’s match play finals. Liberty lost its footing on the third day, falling back into third place by the end of the day. Sam Houston took second, with LA Tech remaining on top. Liberty, seeded No. 3, faced No. 2 seed Sam Houston in the semifinals, with the Flames coming out on top in a 3-1-1 victory.

The Flames advanced to the finals against No. 4 seed UTEP. After playing an exciting 36 holes of match play, the Flames and the Miners entered a playoff series that lasted five rounds.

Both sophomore Josh Ryan and senior Austin Barbin shot birdies on the 18th hole, taking them to the playoffs. Barbin lost his first hole to UTEP’s Sebastian Sandin, turning all eyes to Ryan for the remainder of the matches.

“The guys just stuck in there and ground it out,” Thomas said. “We had a couple of guys step up big time in match play, which was really nice. Josh Ryan played really well, so did Ike Joy and Isaac Simmons. They all played really good match play.”

The fate of Liberty’s shot at a conference title rested in the hands of Ryan as he shot against UTEP’s Dylan Teeter. Ryan and Teeter provided an exhilarating contest as they matched each other’s shots on each hole. Teeter was the first to crack, going over par and giving Ryan and the Flames the victory and this year’s title. Alongside Liberty’s team victory, Ryan finished second place overall for his individual score.

The Flames outshined Middle Tennessee State, which was favored to win this event since it had claimed three title wins since 2018. Middle Tennessee fell to the Flames as it finished the championship ranked fifth, not qualifying to advance to match play. 

“It’s always nice to win and to be able to go to a course that our guys had never been to before and win when the other teams are used to playing there. It was great,” Thomas said. “You just never know what’s going to happen.”

Photo Provided

The Flames represented Liberty well in its first CUSA Golf Championship, as junior Joy and graduate Isaac Simmons earned individual wins alongside Ryan and the title win. The Flames will return to the Mountain with a shiny new trophy to accompany their newest CUSA title.

“We’re happy with the win and excited for postseason. These guys have worked hard, and I’m excited to see what’s going to happen next,” Thomas said. “My guys have U.S. Open qualifying over the next couple of weeks, and we’re getting ready for regionals. We’ll find out Wednesday where we’re going to go, and we’ll see what that looks like and move from there.”

This win buys the Flames an automatic bid to advance to the NCAA regional selection, taking place May 1.

White is the assistant sports editor. Follow her on X

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