Heading West: Cats in NCAA hunt

Bernard Schwartz

Chris Regenberg, the Northwestern women’s golf coach since the beginning, didn’t have much time to spare.

And it wasn’t until the end of that brief interview, before Regenberg broke off, that her voice broke with pride.

“This is by far the best team we’ve ever had,” she said.

That statement, issued by the only person qualified to stake such a claim, came on the heels of the Wildcats’ best finish of the season — a second place at the NCAA East regionals.

No. 31 NU tied for second this weekend in Columbus, Ohio, despite competing against a field comprised of 10 teams in the top 25.

Only Duke, the defending national champion and the No. 1 team, played better than the Cats. Even then, the Blue Devils were only three strokes better.

“The biggest advantage was going back to Ohio State’s Scarlet Course,” Regenberg said.

That NU had its best finish of the season in its most important and competitive tournament was made less surprising because the regionals were held at the Scarlet, where some NU golfers have played numerous competitive rounds.

“We came in knowing that we play well on this course,” Regenberg said. “There was a confidence that comes from familiarity — we didn’t have to change our strategy for this tournament.”

The Cats followed a simple enough strategy: shoot the lowest team score everyday, for every round. NU didn’t do quite that, but two 299s kept the team in second place after the first two rounds and a final-round 302 left it in second place, tied with Big Ten champion Purdue.

A second in its first regional appearance guaranteed NU its first NCAA championships bid in team history.

And also for the first time, the Cats’ season has extended longer than the final round of the Big Ten championships. NU has never played so late into May or experienced NCAA competition.

But this season has been different. Goals always formulated in September — but never reached in previous seasons — have been accomplished.

“We went out and played hard,” Regenberg said. “Things just fell into place. Things that aren’t under your control, like good tee times and weather, fell into place this weekend.”

NU EXPECTATIONS: As the fifth qualifying team out of the Midwest District, the Cats just wanted to play well enough at the regionals to qualify for the championships.

Finishing second never crossed their minds.

“I don’t think we really expected it,” said freshman Elizabeth Burden, who tied for 15th at the regionals. “I figured if we played well, everything would turn out well.”

“It was such an honor to be there,” said Kristen Beystehner, who finished 70th. “And we appreciated being there, but once we got there, it became business as usual.”

Still, Beystehner never expected that getting down to business would mean finishing ahead of some of the best teams in the country.

“It was a surprise,” Beystehner said, “a big, huge, happy surprise.”

CATS GO WEST: None of the starting NU golfers live west of the Illinois border, but that’s where NU is headed after qualifying for the NCAA championships in Sun River, Ore.

The Cats competed in two tournaments in Texas this season — the Midwest Classic and the GTE “Mo”morial — but that’s as far west as they’ve gone.

Just playing in Oregon will be a new experience.

“I’ve never been there,” Beystehner said. “This team just keeps going and going.”