The start of the postseason has Northwestern brimming with an aggressive attitude as the Wildcats begin their quest for a second Big Ten title in three years on Friday.
“Going into this, it’s all of us being fired up to go get the victory at Big Ten Championships and really stick it out start to finish,” junior Kaitlin Park said. “We really need to stick with the confidence we have in ourselves this week.”
NU enters the Big Ten Championships, which will take place Friday through Sunday at the Fort Golf Resort in Indianapolis, following a pair of up-and-down performances where players admitted team confidence was shaky.
That explains the emphasis on a high sense of belief and that the No. 15 Cats come in as the highest ranked squad in the field and have a chance at redemption from last year.
After capturing the first Big Ten title in school history two seasons ago, NU entered the 2014 event as a favorite to repeat, but fell to fifth after 18 holes and never caught up in a third place effort.
But the Cats aren’t looking to past results, instead focusing on the current team depth to secure the title. The Big Ten tournament offers a 6-count-4 format, which means NU will have six players counting toward the team total rather than the usual five.
“I think it’ll be really good for us to go Nos. 1-6,” coach Emily Fletcher said. “It’s an asset for us, and we’ll try to capitalize on that.”
The Cats’ depth advantage has faltered in recent weeks, but Fletcher said she has seen good signs from her team in practice and the lower parts of her lineup have shown spurts of quality play in recent events and are rounding into form at the right time.
Park could be the wildcard this week. The former Big Ten Freshman of the Year placed sixth at Big Tens two years ago.
The junior was left off the roster at the Bryan National Collegiate and didn’t have a team-counting score at the Silverado Showdown, but appears to be rejuvenated ahead of the conference battle.
“It definitely was a time for me to get some rest and work hard on my game,” Park said. “I had been struggling and the time that was given to me, it was good for me to get my game and confidence back. I feel good going into Big Tens.”
Another veteran presence the Cats can count on is Hana Lee.
The senior has placed third, tied for 12th and tied for 18th in her three previous Big Tens appearances. Although none of those finishes occurred at the Fort Golf Resort, it’s more her attitude at this tournament that has facilitated Lee’s success.
“The environment or atmosphere could be a little bit different, but mentally I tell myself that it’s still another tournament,” Lee said. “I don’t try to put too much emphasis on it.”
And if that’s not enough, the course offers the Cats key advantages. The Fort Golf Resort layout has greens that are soft and holding approach shots, something Lee said would allow the team to attack more often — an aggressive approach Fletcher has craved in recent weeks.
The track is also forgiving around the greens, with the bunkers set back aways from the putting surfaces. This allows for straightforward pitches and chips, which is imperative for a Cats squad that has consistently pointed to its short game as its weakest link.
A victory is still far from a given, though. Wind in the forecast could complicate matters and No. 33 Purdue and No. 41 Ohio State may be troublesome for the Cats.
Also, freshmen Hannah Kim and Sarah Cho must significantly improve on their recent struggles if NU is going to ride its depth to a title.
Yet, Fletcher trusts her squad and isn’t taking this week lightly.
“This group is very talented, and they’ve worked extremely hard,” Fletcher said. “We’re looking to place some value on a good year that we’ve had so far and really finish it off this time of year is what’s most important. It comes down to playing well at this time of year.”