BRADENTON -- Florida State is the favorite coming into the NCAA Division I Men's Golf Championships because of its depth.
The No. 1 Seminoles only have one individual in the Top 10 nationally -- St. Petersburg High alumnus Jack Maguire, who checks in at No. 10 according to Golfweek -- and rely on a deep stable of contributors.
They have Winter Springs native Hank Lebioda, the No. 15 player in the country, and Dutchman Rowin Caron at No. 27. Recently, though, FSU has leaned on its No. 5 player during the stretch run to seal a spot in its fourth consecutive NCAA Championships.
Cristobal Del Solar, a Chile-born IMG Academy alumnus, has logged top-10 finishes in each of Florida State's past two tournaments, including a tie for ninth at the NCAA Regional Championship in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"I feel like I'm playing really good at the moment," said Del Solar, a redshirt sophomore and the 192nd-ranked player in the country. "I think my best golf is still yet to come. I've been playing really good my last few tournaments, so I'm just gonna keep going better and better."
On Friday, Del Solar will return to Bradenton with the Seminoles for the NCAA Championships at The Concession Golf Club in East Manatee. FSU will begin teeing off on the 10th hole at 12:20 p.m. for the first round in a group with Texas and Arizona State.
Florida and USF, the championship host, also will compete at The Concession this weekend. The Gators tee off at 8:40 a.m. on the back nine for the first round, and the No. 15 Bulls begin on the back nine at 2 p.m.
USF was a trendy dark-horse pick for The Golf Channel analysts during a pre-tournament conference call Thursday. Former Houston golfer Billy Ray Brown is serving as the on-course reporter and cited a home-course advantage as a reason for USF's potential success.
"Do they have the power players and the known players that most schools have that are up there, like Illinois?" Brown said. "No, they don't, but they also bring local knowledge and a comfort zone to where they play it enough to where that fear factor that a lot of teams are going to have, they're not going to have."
Former Florida State and UF head coach Buddy Alexander agreed with Brown's assessment.
"They're well-coached," he said, "and you just can't get enough local knowledge on that golf course."
Even though Del Solar
played at IMG for two years, he never had a chance to play The Concession. Instead, the Seminoles had to settle for scouting the course by watching the women's championships on TV earlier this week.
FSU head coach Trey Jones came down to Bradenton on Monday for a spot with The Golf Channel from The Concession and took the opportunity to study the course in person. He returned to Tallahassee for Florida State's final practices ahead of Thursday's practice round with additional knowledge.
"He tried to simulate the golf course," Del Solar said, "what shots we need or what kind of chips that we have, that kind of idea."
While Del Solar won't have the advantage of knowing the course first hand, he will get to see some familiar faces his weekend in Manatee County. He expects some of the Ascenders coaches to come out and watch, but he's even more excited to see some of his old teammates.
There are several former IMG golfers competing at the NCAA Championships, including Cheng-Tsung Pan, a senior and top player for No. 13 Washington, and Texas Tech freshman Mito Pereira. The fellow Chilean has been in touch with Del Solar leading up to the championships.
"I've talked to my friends," Del Solar said. "It'll be good to see them."