(Editor’s note: This feature was originally published on Pittsburgh Golf Now, your home for golf news, reviews and features from across the region.)
When I was a kid, my family’s church would host weekly fish dinners during Lent.
One year, the folks who lent their time and energy to the task wore T-shirts that read: ‘Stop me before I volunteer again!’
Funny thing was, you couldn’t slap the smiles off their faces as they dished out the fried flounder.
West Virginia University head golf coach Sean Covich can relate to that whole labor-of-love thing. The day day after his program hosted the Mountaineer Invitational at the Pete Dye Golf Course in Bridgeport, the ‘Eers’ sixth-year leader confessed to being exhausted, but happy.
“It’s always stressful hosting,” Covich said, “but I’m really proud.”
Hey, it helps when you win, which WVU did by 12 combined strokes over 54 holes April 12-13 — the third consecutive time it’s claimed its own tourney.
“Winning made it all worth it,” he said. “Just to win at home is special. A lot of teams don’t even host (a tournament). The staff at Pete Dye puts on a great show and we had a good gallery.”
In addition to renewing the event for the sixth time, the Mountaineer Invitational highlighted a season that saw WVU recalibrate with a significant push from senior Greensburg native Mark Goetz.
Goetz completed his gobsmacking 12-under-par total at Pete Dye GC with a 7-under 65, a career low in NCAA competition. He was the only player under par for the 12-team event, validating the Kiski School alum as one of the biggest sticks in the Big XII.
The flourish at the finish also continued a fun trend: Goetz ranks 17th in all of Division I men’s golf with a 69.7 final-round average this season.
“It was a fun couple of days,” said Goetz, who had a cheering section make the trip down I-79. “It’s always fun (to host). It’s got a different feel to it for sure.”
After WVU lost two players last summer to transfers, another to season-altering injury and a fourth to pandemic-related travel complications, Covich’s crew needed Goetz to pace a group that includes three first-year NCAA competitors.
“We had a couple guys leave, but it’s gonna happen,” Goetz told me. “We needed some people to step up and they did. It showed what we had in the tank. … It turned out to be a great year for us.”
Although his winning margin was wide, Goetz’s medalist performance at the Mountaineer Invitational was his first as a collegian. For a player who has lifted trophies in western Pennsylvania in each of the past two summers (the 2019 Westmoreland County Amateur and the 2020 West Penn Open) you could say this breakthrough was in the making.
The results bear that out. He’s dropped his scoring average from 73.7 last season to 71.0 in 18 rounds as a senior, making him the only Mountaineer who’s under par on the season.
“He’s proven to himself that he’s a good player,” Covich said. “Mark just gives everybody confidence. He’s the best player (on the team) and the other players know it.”
As the student-athlete himself will admit, Goetz has made significant strides to get to where he stands now, as the unquestioned WVU alpha who’s also harboring professional playing aspirations.
Upon his arrival in Morgantown, the 2016 PIAA state individual champion for Kiski found the NCAA waters a little deep for his liking, but that wasn’t due to a lack of ability.
“When I was brought in as a freshman, I was pretty raw,” said the 6-foot-2 Goetz, a former basketball player. “I had a lot of (club) speed and skill, but there were things that I lacked. Course management was lacking.”
Covich complimented Goetz’s willingness to think his way around a treacherous Pete Dye layout as key to his blowout win.
“It was the hardest setup we’ve ever had,” said Covich, who was intensely involved in setting the course conditions, in conjunction with the Pete Dye GC staff. “The rough had not been cut this spring. You miss a green by two feet, you’re just hacking it out.
“That’s what made Mark’s performance so incredible. A bogey-free 7 under (final round) was pretty impressive. I didn’t see that out there. He’s got a lot of strengths. He’s driving it better than anybody and he hits it so far, but what was really impressive was his process and routine. He hit all the shots he needed to, and when there were flags to fire at, he did.”
Goetz credits a number of instructors, including Oakmont Country Club head pro Devin Gee, for helping him refine his raw tools over the past four years.
A burgeoning friendship with six-time PGA Tour winner and fellow Greensburg native Rocco Mediate has been beneficial, too. Goetz said playing practice rounds with the 2008 U.S. Open runner-up has revealed some secrets.
In particular, Mediate’s thoughts on how best to find the sweet spot have translated. Good evidence of that can be found in Goetz’s par-3 scoring average this season, a 3.03 mark that’s just outside the top 50 nationally.
“I’ve noticed a significant increase in hitting the center of the face,” Goetz said. “I used to have to scramble and putt, but the ball-striking sets the standard of play. It’s taken a lot of stress off other parts of my game.”
Goetz’s rise has had a similar relieving effect on the WVU team as a whole. With the aforementioned subtractions from the roster, the Mountaineers have been forced to retool after being in position to make the NCAA tournament last spring, before the pandemic.
That would’ve been WVU’s second consecutive NCAA berth, which — coupled with its first-ever top-25 ranking in the fall of 2019 — had Covich’s team poised to continue its ascent to national prominence.
Instead, COVID-19 intervened. Goetz and fellow senior Logan Perkins have committed to return for a fifth season in the fall, but WVU’s results in 2020-21 have been mostly middling. Until the win at Pete Dye, the Mountaineers finished no higher than seventh in any tournament and lost all four of their Big XII dual meets in the fall.
“It’s been kind of like starting over,” Covich said. “On paper, it’s not our best year by any stretch of the imagination.”
Covich is quick to say that retaining Goetz, Perkins and junior Virginian Kurtis Grant could give him his “best roster ever” in 2021-22, although there’s still one event to play this spring: The Big XII Championships April 26-28 at Prairie Dunes Golf Club in Hutchison, Kansas.
With four teams ranked in the latest Golfstat top 25 — No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 6 Texas and No. 22 Texas Tech — the standard of play figures to be high. Since WVU men’s golf was revived in 2015-16, the Mountaineers’ highest finish in the year-end conference gathering was ninth, in 2018.
But after first-year players Trent Tipton (73.5 scoring average in 15 rounds) and Jackson Davenport (74.6 in 18 rounds) were forced to sink or swim, and the recent return of senior Quebecker Etienne Papineau, there’s reason to believe WVU is better positioned to compete now than it was in the fall.
For all the drawbacks to the pandemic, WVU allowing students to attend classes online gave Covich the opportunity to take his team on a couple of training trips south before the spring season got going.
For a school near the Mason-Dixon Line that competes in a warm-weather sport without an indoor training facility of its own, that’s significant.
“Our administration is very supportive,” Covich told me, “but we have a lot of disadvantages. In the fall we don’t have many issues (with weather), but the biggest challenge is getting guys ready in January and February.”
The hope now is that after enduring two seasons interrupted by COVID-19 and taking their lumps with a younger lineup, the Mountaineers are better for the experience.
WVU’s top gun in on board with that thought, especially since the NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to golfers who wish to use it.
“It’s been crazy, to be honest with you,” Goetz said. “It’s been good and bad, but it’s shown me how much competing means to me. Playing on a team is something I’ve really enjoyed.”
And regardless of the result in Kansas, both Goetz and the team have a win to grow on.