Few considered 12th-ranked Stanford a serious threat entering the NCAA Championships. Although the Cardinal arrived with four consecutive team wins, top-ranked powerhouse and defending national champion Oklahoma State was the prohibitive favorite and boat-raced the 30-team field by 31 strokes in 72-hole stroke play qualifying.
After a strong start, Stanford sputtered the last two rounds on the steep and punishing 7,550-yard layout and seemed in danger in missing of one of the eight match play berths. But as has been the case all year, different players stepped up when it mattered the most and the Cardinal secured the sixth spot.
To shake things up, Cardinal coach Conrad Ray replaced junior David Snyder with Nate Menon for the third round.
Snyder wrote himself back into the script and grabbed the spotlight, foreshadowing an unbelievable series of events born of fantasy. Real life just doesn't work like this.
Senior Isaiah Salinda was the only constant throughout the week and even he wavered momentarily.
Cast in a starring role, Salinda became the local kid who made good; the town sheriff in a lawless land that covered 7,550 yards of prime real estate at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark.
Along with senior Brandon Wu (every sheriff needs a trusted deputy), Stanford tamed the wilderness, supported by Snyder, who shook off a couple of bad rounds to sink a dramatic putt in Stanford's 3-2 victory over No. 3 seed Wake Forest in Tuesday's quarterfinals.
Later in the day, rookie Daulet Tuleubayev, seemingly beaten down by the conditions, delivered an emotional performance, sinking his own critical putt to help beat No. 2 seed Vanderbilt 3-2 and send Stanford into the finals against fifth-seeded Texas.
"Once you get here, you have to think you have a chance," Salinda said. "Once we made match play, I thought we could win. It was pretty cool."
The Longhorns upset Oklahoma in near darkness Tuesday night and felt confident about their chances. But once again, the Cardinal took care of business.
Falling behind early for the second straight match, which began in the predawn light to beat thunderstorms, Ray sent off upperclassmen Henry Shimp, Salinda and Wu first and each delivered a win in the 3-2 victory.
"I'm just so proud of these guys," said Ray. "We battled all week. It is the longest week in golf and to play that fine Texas team and do what we did today, I can't say enough about my guys."
First-year assistant coach Matt Bortis was part of one of the many subplots in this thriller. He competed for Arkansas for three years and the Blessings Golf Club was his home course. He transferred to Texas and played for the Longhorns his senior season.
"Pretty special," he said.
The Cardinal utilized his home course knowledge to full advantage.
"I give a ton of credit to Coach Bortis," said Shimp, who clinched the title on 17 with a 2 and 1 victory against Spencer Soosman in the leadoff spot. "He does a great job of keeping me calm out there. I just stayed confident and tried to hit good shots."
The win was especially satisfying for seniors Salinda and Wu, who competed for Stanford for the last time. Both went 3-0 in match play.
"I couldn't think of a better way to end," said Salinda.
Added Wu, "It's crazy. You can't script a better ending to your career. This whole week we knew that every round could be our last so to end up on a high note is great."
It was the program's ninth NCAA title and first since 2007, Ray's third at the helm. He also played on the team that won the 1994 NCAA crown.
The team jelled in early March at the Southern Highlands Intercollegiate, finishing third against a quality field. It didn't lose again.
Stanford reeled off consecutive victories at The Goodwin, Western Intercollegiate, Pac-12 Championships and NCAA Stanford Regional. The five consecutive wins are the most to end an NCAA Men's Division I title season since Alabama (6) in 2013.
"It is unbelievable," said Shimp, who rebounded from a 2-down deficit. "To win with this group of guys is so cool. Two of my teammates who weren't even on the trip (Chris Meyers and Ethan Ng's excellent adventure) flew in last night and bought their own tickets. It's amazing to do it with teammates like this."
The team relished its underdog role and it provided added incentive.
Ray thinks this team has worked harder than any team he has coached, on and off the course. The effort paid off big, along with the steady play of Salinda and Wu.
"They were rock solid all year, so we lean on them a lot," he said. "They left a strong legacy of leadership. I'm happy they could end their career like this because they are a huge part of our success."
Cue the setting sun.
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