When the Wildcats tee off for the season’s final event, they will likely do so as one of the event’s least stressed teams.
Northwestern starts NCAA Championships on Tuesday at Tulsa Country Club, taking part in a 72-hole journey over four days that will decide the national champion. Among the 24 elite teams in the field, NU enters as the 12th-highest ranked squad, ranked at No. 15 overall.
And it would be easy for the Cats to get complacent. By reaching nationals for the second straight year, the program has already proven that its rise will continue. The same five players that started every previous event this season will do so again in Oklahoma, meaning there is no new competitor hungering for a strong showing in a rare appearance. And while NU possesses a chance at capturing a national title, the squad is facing exactly zero outside pressure to accomplish that feat.
The Cats cruised to 15th at last year’s NCAA Championships, and may appear in line for a similar finish in 2014. But though coach Emily Fletcher is quick to note the fun in the event, she is not allowing her team to take a lackadaisical approach.
“If you look at our highlights over the year, we’ve hung with the best teams in the country at times,” Fletcher said. “Is there the pressure of winning a national championship? No. But there is the opportunity for us to compete for the national championship. We’ve shown, when we play our best golf, we can compete with any of those top teams that may have more of a target on their back.”
That is not an empty claim. The Cats have beaten several top-20 squads this season, including 5 currently top 20 squads at the 18-hole Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic.
Most impressive are the performances against USC. The Trojans are the defending national champions and the No. 1 team in the nation but have yet to prove their unquestioned superiority in matchups against NU.
Yes, USC outdid NU by 38 strokes at Regionals. Before that though, the Cats trumped the Trojans by 17 strokes at the Liz Murpheyand fell only two shots behind USC at the Silverado Showdown.
Last season may have been the most accomplished in school history, but results like these explain why the players have since amassed an extraordinary confidence against elite competition.
“As a team, we expect more from each other,” junior Hana Lee said. “It’s not like last year, where it’s like ‘Are we going to make it?’ We know we’re good enough and we’re more comfortable around these pressure environments.”
The Cats’ top two, Lee and sophomore Kaitlin Park, will be looking to rebound from underwhelming showings at NCAA Regionals, where neither of the First Team All-Big Ten honorees placed in the top 40.
But that’s why depth is so important. During the spring, four of the five regulars posted the team’s lowest score for at least one event, and all five regulars have placed among NU’s top two at multiple events.
Sophomores Suchaya Tangkamolprasert and Elizabeth Szokol saved the team from an exit at Regionals. And their teammates relish this intra-team dynamic.
“We are continuously being competitive, and we’re making sure we’re getting the best out of ourselves every single tournament,” Park said. “We compete against each other and congratulate each other whenever someone does the best. It’s really good for the team.”
If NU wants to compete for a win — or a top-five finish — its depth must shine through not as a savior but rather as a collective attacking front.
As Fletcher said, this team can be scary good when all starters are at their peaks. In one day at the Liz Murphey event, the Cats beat three currently top-10 squads by at least 14 strokes.
NU was ranked 19th to start the spring and has played around a top-10 level since, to move up to No. 15. In addition, the Tulsa Country Club is a tree-lined, old established golf course, something the Cats practice on often in the Midwest.
So the odds of NU battling for the title are by no means astronomical.
The team has adopted a motto from NU director of golf Pat Goss, “Play to play great.” The phrase suggests competing without fear brings out an athlete’s best.
And in the final event against the toughest field, Fletcher hopes her players’ mentalities move full bore in this direction.
“It’s all about wrapping our minds around the fact that this is a chance to compete against the best in the country,” Fletcher said. “It’s us being able to have the mentality of not being scared going in. As long as we don’t get in our own way and don’t commit unforced errors, we’re good. I believe in this group.”
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