When golf season came to a close last spring, the biggest question facing the Binghamton University squad was obvious: How will the team fare without standout Jake Katz?

In his senior year alone, Katz tallied nine top-10 finishes, five runner-up performances and an individual title at the Cornell University Invitational. The two-time America Sky Conference Player of the Year earned a bid to the 2011 NCAA Regionals, and despite his 42nd-place finish in the event, brought national attention to Binghamton’s program.

So the answer? Big shoes to fill. But this year’s Bearcats are (confidently) ready for the challenge.

“Personally I think we’re going to be even stronger this year,” junior David Cellura said. “I think coach [Bernie Herceg] did a great job with recruiting, and we’re a well rounded team. We’re obviously going to miss Jake, but we’re looking pretty strong.”

BU’s golfers kept busy this offseason; many played in summer tournaments to ready themselves for the upcoming fall campaign. Cellura, along with senior Mike Surdey, earned top-20 finishes in the 89th New York State Amateur Championship in July. Katz was the runner-up.

“We need to take advantage of the summer, and the players as Division I athletes have a passion for the game and want to compete,” Herceg said. “It’s going to help them go into the season a bit more on top of things and ready to go right from the get-go.”

The upcoming schedule has provided the Bearcats with plenty of excitement, culminating with the America Sky Championship next spring. The tournament’s winner, who previously earned little reward beyond bragging rights, will earn a bid to the NCAA Regionals. The bid, which was withheld by the NCAA during the conference’s first two years, could not be rewarded until the America Sky entered its third year of existence.

“The overall goal is to win the conference championship and have the opportunity to play in the NCAA regionals,” Herceg said. “Now that we have that opportunity, that’s a goal, but we also want to win some events. I tried to put together the best schedule I could so we’re competing against some better teams and have the opportunity to improve our ranking.”

Though Binghamton’s schedule includes tournaments hosted by University of Missouri, University of Maryland and Austin Peay State University, winning events is still a major focus.

“All of the players on the team are up to the challenge of making our team better than it was last year, even without Jake,” Herceg said. “To do that we need to be more consistent from the top down.”

In addition to Surdey, Steve Armstrong and Trevor Fiedler round out the team’s seniors, and Cellura and Ryan Prinzo its juniors. Sophomores Paul Andrews and Bryce Edmister, along with three freshmen, round out the BU roster.

“Last year we weren’t as deep as a team,” Fiedler said. “This year I think we’re going to be much deeper and it’ll be much more competitive to get into the lineup. It’s a good thing, everyone will have more drive to travel.”

“Everyone’s got to get more consistent, everyone knows what they need to do,” he continued. “Everyone needs to grind on their swing and figure out a go-to shot. You need to put it in play. We need to putt well, and I think our team is already putting better this year than any other year.”

While the Bearcats open their season this weekend, the team’s lineup has yet to be determined. For the players, finishing strong during practice rounds is a definite priority.

“You root for each other, but you still want to beat out the other players so you can travel,” Armstrong said. “That’s half the battle.”

With cutthroat competition in house, Binghamton’s golfers have put in extra effort to earn the opportunity to travel with the team. With no clear-cut No. 1, solid overall performances will be key in winning tournaments and events.

“The big thing this year will be team chemistry,” Armstrong said. “We all need to rely on each other; we don’t have one stud who can carry the team anymore. We all need to mesh; all the scores are going to count.”

The Bearcats will travel to Verona, N.Y. this weekend for the Turning Stone Tiger Intercollegiate hosted by University of Missouri, where in 2010 BU finished seventh in the field of 18.

For the golfers, the tournament will be the official end to an offseason of golf, golf and more golf, but even they found some time to relax.

“I took some time off for vacation, and it was the best vacation I’ve ever had,” Fiedler said. “I had a butler.”