Illinois entered the 30th Louisiana Classics Golf tournament as the nation’s top-ranked collegiate unit, and the Fighting Illini showed why on Monday.

Louisiana-Lafayette golf coach Theo Sliman had his team paired up with the Illini in Monday’s first two rounds and wanted to get into the final grouping with the two-time defending champions for Tuesday’s final round.

He’ll get his wish, as Illinois blazed to a 19-under-par 557 score in Monday’s two trips around the Oakbourne Country Club layout to take a 14-stroke lead on the rest of the field. The Illini’s closest competitor is the host Ragin’ Cajun squad, which stands in second place after a five-under 571 day.

“When you bring in the number one team in the country,” Sliman said, “not that you’re not playing to beat them, but you realize they’re number one for a reason. For us to compete alongside them for 36 holes and watch the composure of these guys and watch their tenacity and toughness, and then to have good rounds, I’m extremely proud.”

The consistent Illinois squad didn’t count a score over 70 in Monday’s early round that was played in misty conditions. In the afternoon, when temperatures started to plummet, the defending champs still had four sub-par scores to take the big team lead.

Freshmen Nick Hardy and Dylan Meyer both carded two-under 70 scores in the morning round to join with veterans Thomas Detry, Charlie Danielson and Brian Campbell and give the Illini five sub-par scores in the first round.

“Our two young freshmen, who’ve never been here before, both shot a couple under par each, and that’s a good start,” said Illinois coach Mike Small. “Thomas finished strong (birdies on two of his last three holes) this afternoon and that carried us.”

The host Cajuns were solidly in second place after the morning round with a four-under 284 score, led by a 69 from junior Haraldur Magnus, and withstood charges by several teams to lock up a spot in Tuesday’s final grouping on the testing 6,898-yard Oakbourne layout.

“We needed to make a few birdies to get into that final three and the guys did it,” Sliman said. “It’ll be another opportunity to go against the number one team in the country and learn how tough we are.”

Play begins at 7:30 a.m. in tee times off the Nos. 1 and 10 tees. The live tournament webcast is available online

Texas State made a huge second-round rally with an eight-under 280 score and stands in third place, three behind the Cajuns at two-under 574, while Middle Tennessee is one more back at 575 and Kansas stands fifth at 577 in the 14-team field.

Detry had a bogey-free 68 in the morning round, with his only bogey coming on his round-opening second hole in the afternoon. He then birdied the 17th and 18th as darkness approached for a seven-under 137 score, and shares the individual lead with Middle Tennessee’s Payne Denman (69-68).

Danielson is in third place individually at 71-68–139 after posting six birdies in the afternoon round, and Campbell and Hardy are tied for eighth at 141 to give the Illini four players in the individual top 10 entering Tuesday’s final 18 holes.

“People say a deep team is having four good players and some say a deep team is having five players,” Small said. “I believe a deep team is having six, with the guy at home wanting to get in the lineup. That’s a pretty big deal. As long as we keep doing that, we’ll be consistent.”

Magnus had a bogey-free 69 in the morning round and rallied after a two-over start in the afternoon to stand tied for fourth at 69-71–140, while Cajun senior teammate Louis Kelly rallied from a morning 74 with an eagle and three birdies in the afternoon for a 69. Sophomore Fernando Cruz Valle had a consistent 71-72 day and is tied with Kelly for 12th at 143.