The Wildcats will travel out west for NCAA Regionals looking to do exactly what they accomplished last year, maybe just in a different manner.
The NCAA West Regional begins Thursday at Tumble Creek Golf Club in Suncadia, Washington, a gathering of 24 teams where the top-eight finishers qualify for NCAA Championships. Last year Northwestern finished sixth, earning them a spot among those elite few. But the team only did so after starting the day in 10th, needing a significant final-round charge to ensure its spot.
Acquiring a top-eight spot sounds like a rather benign mission, except for the severity of the competition. The field includes seven teams ranked in the top 20, with No. 1 USC, No. 6 Arizona State and No. 7 Oklahoma headlining this enclave. An astounding 17 squads find themselves among the top 50 heading into this event.
NU will not be intimidated by this vast aggregation of talent. The Cats enter as the No. 7 seed and have actually bested the Trojans over their last 72 holes in head-to-head competition.
This particular regional offers yet another advantage for a far-away squad like the Cats: a lack of home field advantage for the nearby teams.
“The golf course is truly a neutral site because Washington doesn’t host its annual tournament at this site,” coach Emily Fletcher said. “So it’s not like USC and Arizona State, teams that play in that event every fall, have played this course over and over again. Beyond Washington being the host, I don’t think any other team has seen this golf course.”
NU can also take solace in the fact that, with the event proposing a top-eight finish rather than a victory as a path to the promised land, regionals favor higher seeds that don’t fluctuate wildly in their play. Such stability has largely been the Cats’ philosophy this season. Save for a peculiar 14th-place showing in North Carolina, the team has not been outside the top three in any spring event.
This stems from a five-deep lineup that is usually short of spectacular individually but offers a formidable dosage of collectivity. The awards are there to show for it, with junior Hana Lee and sophomore Kaitlin Park earning First Team All-Big Ten honors this past week, along with sophomore Elizabeth Szokol’s and freshman Kacie Komoto’s Second Team All-Big Ten nods.
Park did not play her best at Big Ten Championships, and neither did the team in a disappointing third-place finish. But the sophomore insists that event will aid the team this week.
“We got a lot of good experience, a lot of good shots out there,” Park said. “I feel like we will be more prepared, having played such a tough course.”
One issue looms large for NU: The Cats have struggled mightily in opening rounds this spring. Except for one event, NU’s worst position in 54-hole spring tournaments has been after the first round.
Though this concept may have worked wonders for NU at last year’s Regionals, the team isn’t taking any chances at repeating this method.
“We’ve been a little bit slow starting this year, so especially at Regionals, where you know you’re trying to finish inside a number, you’d rather not get behind the eight-ball and have to play our way back inside the top-eight,” Fletcher said. “I’d like for us to get off to as good a start as possible, but that’s even more critical in this event.”
The Cats certainly appear poised for a repeat appearance at NCAA Championships, but they also looked good to win Big Tens and that didn’t happen.
These players, though, have never doubted their abilities, and they’re not going to start now.
“I have confidence in this team right now,” Park said. “We have a really good chance at making it again. We’re going to go out there and try to do the same thing as last year.”
Email: [email protected]