As the last team to sneak into its first NCAA Championships since 1986 — seeded last at No. 30 — Ball State’s men’s golf team wasn’t expected to make much noise in the field of the nation’s top programs.

“Staying relevant” has been the team’s mantra all season long. The two words have been personified in the Cardinals’ play.

Through Ball State’s first nine holes at the Capital City Club Tree Crab Apple Course in Atlanta, the team got off to one of its best starts all season, stationing itself among the favorites — even holding the top spot for a few holes. 

“We couldn’t have asked for a better start out of the gates,” coach Mike Fleck said. “The guys were playing disciplined, staying in fairways and knocking down putts.”

In a situation where the magnitude of the stage could have intimidated and hampered Ball State, the Cardinals shrugged off the pressure and played like it was a practice round at the Delaware Country Club.

“Our guys looked comfortable out there,”  Fleck said. “They didn’t get caught up in the who is who.”

But as day one progressed, Ball State regressed. After a blistering start, the Cardinals fell to 24th.

“The back nine is just the tougher part of the course,” Fleck said. “But it was a combination of things: the wind picked up and the greens got firmer.”

After staying close to under-par through the first nine holes, the Cardinals finished at 10-over.

Despite what seemed like a fall-off, the Cardinals’ 290 was the best round for a Ball State team at a NCAA Championships. Ball State’s round was also good enough to place it in front of five top-20 teams.

Senior Tony Lazzara led the team with the best round ever recorded by a Cardinal in the NCAA Championships with an even-par score of 70.  

Senior Alex Stinson and junior Tyler Merkel both carded a 2-over 72, while senior Joe Gasser shot 76 and sophomore transfer McCormick Clouser shot a 77. 

Ball State was forced to start the second round on the treacherous back nine in the afternoon — starting it at the place, in the conditions, where it had faltered on day one. 

There was no miraculous, one-night remedy that righted the ship for the Cardinals. Ball State struggled once again, but it kept itself relevant by posting good scores on the front.

The team broke its own record by one stroke before the ink had dried, carding a collective 289.

Led once again by Lazzara, who broke his own recorded by posting a 69, the fifth-year senior embodied the team’s motto in another way.

In the fall season, Ball State searched for production from its fifth spot. Fleck even opened the spot up for an inter-team competition.

Lazarra did not make the top-five in a few events, but has upped his game and has been a solid contributor over the second half of the season and, more importantly, the postseason.

“On this team, anybody on any given day can lead us,” Fleck said. “Tony is very deserving to shoot the rounds he has; he has worked hard all year and through his whole career.” 

A 72 from Gasser, 74’s from McCormick and Stinson and 77 from Merkel complimented Lazzara. 

Now Ball State is in 28th, but more disconcerting is the fact that it sits 19 strokes out of the top-eight. After Thursday’s final round of stroke play, the top eight teams will move on to match play. 

Even though the team’s season has only 18 holes left, with seemingly nothing to gain, Fleck said the team will not just give in. 

“The guys are a little disappointed, but they know they still have a lot to play for,” Fleck said.

Fleck said the team still has its sights on moving up the leaderboard and knocking off more elite teams. This also means the team will be playing for the future, to show what Ball State golf is about and where it wants to be.

Ball State will start what is likely to be its last round of the season Thursday at 7 a.m. with its new partners 29th St. Mary’s and 30th South Carolina.