For the first time all spring, Northwestern will enter a tournament with several signs pointing against the team at the outset.
The No. 9 Wildcats will return to competition at the Bryan National Collegiate in Greensboro, North Carolina, on Friday, just five days after finishing their previous event. The time table is further constricted because NU landed home on Sunday night and flew to North Carolina on Wednesday afternoon. It can’t help that the Cats are adjusting back to stroke play after last week’s match-play heavy Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic.
In addition, NU produced its worst performance of 2014 at this event with a 14th-place showing.
But the team has a solid record overall in the Bryan National Collegiate and the players appear better suited for what Mother Nature may bring.
“Last year I think the (poor) weather was a little bit tricky for us,” sophomore Kacie Komoto said. “This time we had the Liz Murphey before (in tough conditions), so I think we’re definitely more prepared this year. We kind of know what we’re getting into, we know what the weather can be like.”
Due to the start of spring classes and a stomach bug that passed through the team Friday night, players had all of Monday off as well as Tuesday workouts — which helped with the short rest, Komoto said.
The team has also benefited from more practice outdoors. The Cats spent Spring Break at a facility in South Carolina and resumed practices at the Glen Club this week following a cold winter spent indoors.
The transition is a work in progress, but positive results from the fresh air are palpable.
“We’re kind of shaky right now because we’re starting to get outdoors and starting to warm up,” freshman Hannah Kim said. “But I think we’re starting to get stronger and getting more comfortable with playing outside and seeing our shots clearly.”
The negative signs might be superficial, but the test from the competition will be severe over the three-day, 54-hole Bryan National Collegiate, as 11 of the 18 participating squads are ranked in the top 50 and five find themselves in the top 20.
The Cats, though, are the field’s highest-ranked team and continue to thrive in their depth.
Kim is leading the charge with five straight tournaments topping the team in scoring, all top-15 finishes that have mainly been predicated on excellent ball striking. Senior Hana Lee has contributed two top-15 showings in the spring and junior Suchaya Tangkamolprasert has been steadily in the 20-30s position on the final leaderboard.
Coach Emily Fletcher has consistently shuffled the back of the lineup because of the depth, with Komoto and freshman Sarah Cho often fighting for the final spot.
Komoto is safe this week, and Fletcher has opted to implement Cho at the expense of junior Kaitlin Park.
“Sarah’s played well, she did so over Spring Break and during the winter,” Fletcher said. “We thought Kaitlin could benefit from getting some reps in here at home and sorting a few things out.”
As for the layout, the Bryan Park Champions Course is exposed and contains four or five holes with significant water hazards. The team is focusing on shoring up fundamentals and, in expectation of windy conditions on this penal landscape, is working on controlling ball flight.
NU had a down week on the par-fives at the Liz Murphey, but previously led in scoring average on the long holes in each of its first two spring events.
“That’s directly attributable to the work we do with our wedges, and we talk about making sure we layup to good numbers,” Fletcher said. “I think as much as we preach short game and wedge play, that’s a big part of it, converting on par-5s, having under par scoring average on par-5s.”
The Champions Course offers four par-fives that will mostly be unreachable in two, which means the Cats could be in line for victory if they execute to their normal level there.
Maybe then the signs are pointing to a second win of the spring.
With Big Ten Championships three weeks away, though, the team isn’t so tied to the result.
“Instead of focusing on winning or top-3, we should just focus on getting ourselves prepared for Big Tens,” Kim said. “This is more of a warmup of what’s to come later.”
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