Evan Barnum-Steggerda

A group of college-aged guys played cards, watched playoff baseball games and had a typical night for collegiate youth.

The day the group had Monday night in Akron, Ohio, however, was anything but typical.

The Firestone Invitational did not kick-off as planned.

The layer of frost that swept over the North Course of the Firestone Country Club pushed back tee times a couple of hours and forced the event to be shortened from a 54-hole match to a 36-hole match.

Even though the weather was unexpected for the competitors, coach Mike Fleck said the team took the deviation in stride.

"We got up early and got breakfast like usual," Fleck said. "We just relaxed and took it easy until the practice facilities opened up and then got into our normal routine."

The Cardinals did not seem to miss a beat and got into a groove as soon as it hit the links.

Through the first nine holes, Ball State found itself four-under-par, and in second place behind South Carolina-Aiken.

Then the course seemed to stiffen up, and the last nine holes proved to be quite difficult for the field. But while many teams faltered and inked bogeys on scorecards, Ball State kept shooting well and shaving strokes off of par.

By the end of the first round, the Cardinals sat alone atop the leader board and were only one of two teams to shoot under par for the day.

Ball State's No. 1, junior Tyler Merkel, led the team the entire day. Merkel shot a 68, four-under-par, which was good enough to place him in a tie for first on the individual leader board.

That score was three strokes better than Akron's English-born Charlie Bull, giving Merkel the lead in the friendly rivalry's pseudo-Ryder Cup rematch.

Two other top-ten individual finishes by seniors Joe Gasser and Alex Stinson complimented Merkel's score. The pair finished one-under-par each and are tied for 10th individually.

The fourth and final score that contributed to Ball State's total also proved to be out of the ordinary. All season, the fifth spot has been a weak point for the Cardinals, but last week, Fleck held live qualifying rounds in practice to let the decision on who should fill the role for this event make itself.

Senior Tony Lazzara stepped up and took the spot back from freshman James Blackwell, who ended up competing as an individual. Lazzara showed he deserved the spot and shot even-to-par with a 72.

Ball State's other team competitor, fellow senior Brodie Williams, rounded off the day with a 77.

Blackwell, Ball State's only individual competitor, matched William's score with a 77 of his own.

The combined team score of 282 was Ball State's lowest since the Xavier Renaissance Invitational in 2009.

Fleck said the team took advantage on scoring holes, especially the par-fives, by being solid on and around the greens.

Par-fives have been a strength for Ball State all season, and the team continued that trend as all six golfers combined to go eight-under with only one bogey on holes five, seven, 16 and 18.

Fleck also said the team took advantage on intermediate distance putts, six to 10 feet, to turn bogeys into pars and pars into birdies.

Ball State's performance can be put into perspective when compared to No. 22 Saint Mary's College of California's eighth place score of 296.

When a team has a lead in any sport, there is a debate whether to start playing more conservatively to protect it or to keep doing what got the lead.

Fleck said he doesn't plan on changing a thing with a three-stroke lead going into the last round.

"You have to do what you do regardless if you are on top, in the middle of the pack or even if you are on the bottom," Fleck said. "At the end of the day, you just hope to get four good scores."

The final round will start Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.
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