PERKINSTON — There's a beautiful piece of hardware residing at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, the 2018 NJCAA Division II Golf national championship trophy.
The 2018-19 season starts Monday when the Bulldogs travel to Cullman, Ala., for the Wallace State Fall Invitational. It's the first step the No. 1-ranked squad will take in a defense of the title.
There won't be any changes to how they try to get there again.
"That championship trophy is in the rear-view mirror, and we're happy to look at it, but really and truly this is just another year," Gulf Coast coach Tommy Snell said. "I'm trying to figure out my guys. We don't prepare any differently. We're doing the same things we did last year."
He returns four sophomores from last year's team, including Phil Mickelson Award-winner Brice Wilkinson (So., Madison Central/Madison) and Carter Nicholson (So., Pearl River Central/Carriere), who played at Foley, Ala. Both won NJCAA All-American honors for their finishes there, Wilkinson tied for fourth and Nicholson tied for 17th.
"Brice has gotten better with experience and age, but Carter is really pushing him," Snell said. "I think his goal is to beat Brice. If he beats Brice and reaches his goal, that's good for me. If they really battle 1-2, I'm looking forward to it."
Wilkinson, Nicholson and Jackson are 1-2-3 in qualifying for the first tournament, and freshman Jon Hopkins, who is from Bishops Stortford, England, is fourth. That group has separated itself from the next tier of teammates.
"John is just a good solid player," Snell said. "Once John gets used to American golf, he's got a fluid, nice, effortless swing. I think he'll push Brice, too."
Graham is part of a group of seven other golfer separated by eight shots battling for the fifth spot at Cullman, including Jake Crosson (Fr., New Hope/Columbus), Cameron Mobley (Fr., Northwest Rankin/Brandon), Nathan Woolard (Fr., Poplar Bluff/Poplar Bluff, Ark.), Hamp Fairey (Fr., Oak Grove/Hattiesburg), Patrick Powers (Fr., St. Stanislaus/Gulfport) and Hayden Green (Fr., D'Iberville/Biloxi).
Snell said it's the most competitive team he's had in his 19 years at Gulf Coast. They'll play the 54-hole tournament next week, then get ready for the first MACJC Tournament.
"We'll come back and have two weeks before we go to Hinds," he said. "We'll start focusing on things to improve. The guys who don't make it, what do they need to do to improve. The guys who do make it, what they need to do to get better. It's just like it is every year."
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