Fresh off its first Big Ten championship in school history, Northwestern is not prepared to let up as the heart of the postseason approaches.
The No. 29 Wildcats will begin NCAA East Regional play Thursday at the Auburn University Golf Club, facing off against a 24-team field over three days. Despite the top-30 ranking, NU is far from the favorite among a cadre of highly talented squads.
Seven schools participating in the event are ranked in the top 20, and even with a Big Ten title under their belt, the Cats only hold the No. 10 seed among 23 other competitors.
Yet Emily Fletcher — recently named Big Ten Coach of the Year — does not doubt her squad.
“The team has looked good,” Fletcher said. “We’ve had a good week of practice. I feel very confident about where we are, who we’ve got and who we’re moving forward with for this week.”
To be fair, NCAA Regionals is not exactly about finishing in first place. Rather, the key is to finish in the top 8. Out of the 24 teams, those who finish in the top third advance to NCAA Championships, the pinnacle event of collegiate team golf.
With that in mind, the task NU faces becomes significantly less daunting. If the Cats can beat the two teams ranked above them and take care of business with the lower-ranked squads, they will survive the cut to NCAA Championships.
Lauren Weaver will be the only senior player to compete for NU in Auburn this week, and her previous experience affords a clear picture of how to advance.
“On a regional course, every year it’s challenging, and there is long rough,” Weaver said. “A big thing for the team is having a real good short game. If we can be good on the greens, we can be successful.”
As Fletcher noted, driving accuracy will be at a premium as well. More important than any single part of the game, though, is NU’s ability to put every player in position to make a contribution.
The Cats did that remarkably well at Big Ten Championships, with all six players finishing in the top 25. But Regionals will be played in a 5-count-4 format, leaving less margin for error.
“Even though we don’t need that fifth score out there, that vibe of someone playing poorly kind of travels,” Fletcher said. “If we can keep five players in there and have five opportunities to get four really good scores, that allows us in a way to play without fear. And if we do that, there’s no question in my mind that we’ll advance.”
NU certainly has the arsenal to do so. All five players who will travel to Regionals have flashed varying stretches of fine form. Weaver has placed in the top 25 in her last two events, and freshmen Suchaya Tangkamolprasert and Elizabeth Szokol both have a top 10 to their names within the last month. Kaitlin Park, the recently crowned Big Ten Freshman of the Year and member of the All-Big Ten First Team, has captured three top 10s in her five spring starts.
Finally, Hana Lee, another All-Big Ten First Team choice, has completed every single spring event in the top 25 and four of the five in the top 12.
The team cannot rely solely on one person, so all five players must be on top of their games. Weaver has been committed to this squad a full four years, and the meaning of that top-8 finish is certainly not lost on her.
“It’s tough to put into words how much that would mean to me and to the entire team,” Weaver said. “It would be amazing, it would top off my career, and it would do more than I could even imagine if we could advance to the NCAA Championships.”