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I just wrote an "Up To Speed" article which contained three mini-articles within one post. And then I did a word count and it was closing in on 4,000 words. So, uh, Robert, maybe those aren't "mini-articles". Maybe they're just articles. And maybe you should post them one at a time so that people don't need to save the rest of the article for their lunch break.
I'm trying to get better about that, so I'll just work on all three individually. I'll flesh out each topic a little bit and then publish when I think they're ready. This one is ready. Let's talk golf recruiting.
We'll start with a thing I always say when I talk about recruiting and college golf. High school rankings for golfers? Ten times more accurate than high school rankings for basketball or football players. For basketball and football, they're just someone's opinion. This player is better than that player. For golf, it's as simple as "who beat who during their junior golf careers?" Tennis is very similar to this as well. Fairly easy to rank the individual athletes because at the top junior tournaments, if the same four guys are making the semifinals every time, they're probably the four best players in that class.
So I follow golf recruiting fairly closely. Actually, if I were to rank Illini sports by how closely I follow recruiting, it would go...
1. Basketball (yes, really)
2. Football (much more of a crapshoot than basketball)
5. Baseball (mostly because Ben will text me and keep me updated)
Wrestling used to be on that list because I had two sons who wrestled in high school so I was constantly looking at regional and national weight class rankings. But that's fallen way off since then. I should get back into it.
Anyway, this is about golf recruiting. If you follow me on Twitter, you saw that I was tweeting about the Junior PGA over the weekend. 2023 golf recruit Max Herendeen won this national tournament last weekend at Cog Hill. That's a really big deal.
And with just about every top junior golfer in the country trying to win the same tournament, it's something that's going to push him up the rankings. Herendeen also nearly qualified for the US Open this year (as a 16 year-old), so his ranking profile just keeps getting better. Today, I want to compare it to other Illini golfers in the past.
First, a note about US rankings vs. world rankings. Obviously, Mike Small recruits American players (Brian Campbell, Charlie Danielson, Nick Hardy, Dylan Meyer, Michael Feagles) as well as international players (Thomas Pieters, Tom Detry, Edoardo Lipparelli, Adrien Dumont de Chassart, Jerry Ji). The rankings I'm going through today are the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) rankings. So, obviously, no international players are mentioned.
There are ways to measure the strength of international recruits (namely, the World Amateur Golf Rankings, or WAGR), but those are a little more difficult because they rank players all the way until they turn professional at age 23 or whatever. So you're kind of building your WAGR profile from youth into your 20's with the goal of having an accurate ranking of amateur golfers just before they turn professional. This will just be AJGA (which, like basketball rankings, stops at age 18 when everyone goes off to college).
Herendeen winning the Junior PGA jumped him all the way up to 21st in the AJGA rankings. And that's a list which includes all recruiting classes (like if you had a top-100 list of basketball players from the 2022, 2023, and 2024 classes combined). If you sort by just the 2023 class, Herendeen is currently 10th. Mike Small has recruited very well, but 10th is approaching rarified air.
I was texting about this last night with Dan from The Field Pass (our football podcast which will be starting up again soon). We both started researching the history of AJGA rankings and Small's recruits. It's a little confusing - some players were named to AJGA All American teams, but others, who were ranked highly in their classes in the AJGA rankings, were not. But for a baseline here, the bios on the Illini Golf page list the AJGA ranking for many of Mike Small's recruits the last 15 years. Where does Herendeen (currently 10th) stack up? And what about incoming freshman Ryan Voois who will be enrolling next week?
Here's the (incomplete) list so you can get an idea of these rankings. If we just go by AJGA ranking in the player's class (not the overall, multi-class rankings, but the player's ranking in his individual class), here's the rankings when players arrived on campus:
Luke Guthrie - 5th in 2008
Max Herendeen - 10th in 2023
Nick Hardy - 14th in 2014
Scott Langley - 18th in 2007*
Piercen Hunt - 22nd in 2020
Ryan Voois - 30th in 2022
Michael Feagles - 33rd in 2016
Dylan Meyer - 44th in 2014
Jackson Buchanan - 47th in 2021
(The little asterisk there - Langley's exact ranking isn't listed in his bio. But AJGA picks 12 players as 1st Team All-Americans and 12 players as 2nd Team All-Americans - Langley was on the second team, so I put him right in the middle of the second group at 18th. Might have been 13th, might have been 24th, but it's not listed so I don't know the exact ranking.)
To be clear, this is not a complete list of Mike Small recruits. This is just a list of the players who were top-50 in the AJGA rankings. Think of it like the RSCI or something. There were many players not in the RSCI top-100 who were big contributors for Illinois basketball (Luther Head, Trent Frazier, etc). Just like Mike Small has had contributors who were not listed in the AJGA top-50 (Tommy Kuhl, Charlie Danielson, Brian Campbell, etc). He's also had plenty of non-ranked recruits who never made the top-5 rotation so you've never heard their names. This isn't "here's where all of his recruits were ranked", this is "of the dozens of golf recruits Mike Small has landed, here's the top nine per the AJGA rankings."
And I should note again - not every college golf recruit appears in the AJGA rankings. The international guys do not (we could do a whole other list there with Pieters, Detry, ADdC, etc), and there are also some American golfers who don't qualify for the AJGA thing. But just using that list, this is the top-9.
Which brings us to the reason I started looking into this in the first place. I sent Dan a text saying that Herendeen had moved up to 21st/10th once the rankings updated yesterday. He said "best Illini recruit - ever?" and off we went. Our findings:
With Max Herendeen being 21st overall right now and 10th in the class of 2023, there IS a chance he could end up the highest-ranked AJGA player Small has landed. He has an entire year of tournaments to boost his profile before he arrives in Champaign next fall. If he wins a few more junior tournaments, he'll be pushing for top-5.
Which sends my eyes to the horizon, once again looking for the year when Mike Small finally wins that national title. I see the list of nine there and note that Guthrie and Langley were back-to-back years. Combine them with Chris DeForest (who also won the Junior PGA) in Langley's class and that's what started Mike Small's run. Then I see that both Hardy and Meyer were AJGA top-50 guys in the same class. In their four seasons, the Illini made the match play (top eight) at NCAA's four consecutive times.
And then I see Piercen Hunt in 2020, Jackson Buchanan in 2021, Ryan Voois in 2022, and Max Herendeen in 2023. And I start thinking about the NCAA Championships in the spring of 2024...
...when Small wins his second national title after finally breaking through in 2023.