COLUMBIA — Last month, as the Missouri golf team prepared for the Southeastern Conference Championship, Missouri senior co-captain Emilio Cuartero was asked what his goals were for the 2013-14 season.
"My goal is to take the team to the national championship," said Cuartero, Missouri's top performer and the No. 63-ranked golfer in the country.
When Missouri's chance to qualify for the NCAA National Championship came around, it was indeed Cuartero who led the Tigers there.
Cuartero was the individual winner at this weekend's NCAA Columbia Regional at the Club at Old Hawthorne, shooting an 11-under 205 (70-70-65) for the tournament. He and senior co-captain Hunter Kraus were catalysts for Missouri's third-place result at 27-under (281-280-276). By finishing among the top five, Missouri clinched a berth to the national championship, which begins Friday in Hutchinson, Kansas.
Oklahoma State, Arkansas, LSU and Iowa State were the other qualifiers from Missouri's region.
Oklahoma State was the top team finisher, shooting a 33-under 831 (272-287-272) for the tournament. The Cowboys' Talor Gooch (67-73-66) and Jordan Niebrugge (65-73-68) finished tied for second with Kraus at 10-under.
Missouri entered the 14-team tournament as the eighth seed.
The trip to nationals, which Missouri coach Mark Leroux called a shot in the arm for the program, will be the first for the Tigers since 2005 and their ninth overall.
Although it has been nine years between national finals appearances, Leroux said getting there has become the expectation. Missouri's closest brush with nationals in that span was in 2011, when they missed the cut by two strokes. In that tournament, the Tigers were led by Jace Long, who went on to win the regional and earn All-American honors.
Long was the last Missouri individual to win a regional before Cuartero's victory on Saturday.
"So the talk was, 'OK, you (Missouri) got this Jace Long. You guys are pretty good. What happens when he's gone?'" Leroux said. "Well then the next guy comes along, and it's Emilio Cuartero."
The native of Lleida, Spain, had plenty to play for.
"Winning is great," Cuartero said, taking a breath before finishing the sentence. "But winning at home, with your family watching, with the Mizzou fans, it's like winning the Super Bowl. It's winning times 1,000."
Cuartero recalled his thoughts on the first tee Saturday, when he started the day at 4-under.
"'Okay, Emilio, you are tied for seventh. You have two of your teammates in front of you. Are you going to let them beat you? At home?'"
The answer, which was confirmed later, was no.
"So I went aggressive, started playing well, got confidence going, then I finished strong," Cuartero said. "My teammates were my motivation today."
One of those teammates in front of Cuartero at the start of the round was Kraus, the team's No. 5 golfer entering the weekend. Kraus started the final round Saturday in the lead at 7-under. He finished the tournament tied for second, only one stroke behind Cuartero, with a 10-under 206 (68-69-69). His highest finish of the season prior to this weekend's result was 18th at the Bank of Tennessee Intercollegiate in October.
Kraus said he initially didn't want to know he was leading — preferring to put his head down without worrying about the standings. But he acknowledged that seeing his name at the top of the leaderboard was a thrill. Even better was finishing the tournament right behind fellow captain Cuartero.
"Emilio is used to being there," Kraus said about the one-two finish. "It was fun to be up there with him. Means you're playing well if you're close to where Emilio is at."
The national finals run from Friday through May 28 at Prairie Dunes Country Club. The tournament begins with three rounds for all 30 teams. The top eight teams within those 54-holes then play head-to-head rounds.
Missouri is ranked No. 46 in the country and will be a considerable long shot to even advance to the round of eight.
"What can we do?" Leroux said about the road in front of the Tigers. "You know, I don't know.
"I think we'll know a little better after the first two rounds."