May 7, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- The first turning point to the season was more clearly-defined than subtle, more early fall than early spring. It came in late September -- on the same weekend that Wisconsin trounced Purdue in the Big Ten football opener at Camp Randall Stadium.
Miles away in Greenville, S.C., the UW women’s golf team posted a third-round score of 281 to win the Lady Paladin Invitational. The Badgers had two top-five finishers; senior Kris Yoo tied for third place with a 3-under-par 213 and freshman Brooke Ferrell placed fifth, one stroke behind Yoo.
Wisconsin’s 54-hole total of 865 broke what was then the school record.
In retrospect, UW coach Todd Oehrlein felt the way his golfers performed on the Furman University course, especially on the back nine in the final round of the event, was a solid indicator of what they may be able to accomplish as a team if they applied themselves on a consistent basis.
“That maybe changed their perspective a little bit,” he said. “It was like, ‘Boy, we have the potential to be pretty good. There’s some firepower here and the ability to put up some low rounds and put some pressure on the golf course.’ That was important for us.”
There were a couple more noteworthy turning points after the first of the year.
Wisconsin opened its spring schedule by again making some noise during a third round, this time at the UCF Challenge in Orlando, Fla. Sparked by Aaren Ziegler and Alexis Nelson, the Badgers fired a 285, one of just five teams in the 19-team field to finish the final 18 under par.
“It was a really strong field, very heavily stacked with southern climate schools, so they were a little further along,” Oehrlein remembered, “and we finished that golf tournament really, really positively. We moved into a top-half finish and we kind of carried that momentum into Arizona.”
In late February, the Badgers topped what they had achieved in late September. They set a school record for 54 holes by shooting a 5-under-par 859 on the Vistas Golf Course in Peoria, Ariz. That left them in third place behind Ohio State and Oregon at the Westbrook Spring Invitational.
“That kind of stabilized things from a ranking standpoint and a seeding perspective for us,” Oehrlein said. “We didn’t have the early spring slide in the rankings where then you’re trying to play catch-up the rest of the way. So that was a very stabilizing part of our season.”
Wisconsin has taken this path to the NCAA regionals for a third time in four seasons. On the heels of last season’s appearance in the national meet, only the second trip in program history, the Badgers have begun to raise the bar to where a postseason berth is more of the norm than exception.
“It hopefully will start to establish an expectation,” said Oehrlein, who’s completing his 11th season on the job. “You see that within your own program and players. And it has an impact on recruiting and on development. It’s a significant accomplishment.”
|“There’s a lot of energy, a lot of nervousness, a lot of excitement and it’s all good,” Oehrlein said of his team. “They’re going in with the mindset that they’re not just satisfied with getting there.”
Qualifying for another regional is part of doing business in the long term, he hinted.
“You never take it for granted,” cautioned Oehrlein. “But I do think we’ve developed into a solid golf program where the players compete and have the ability to put up some low rounds and make a splash and have an impact.”
The Badgers are the No. 16 seed in the 24-team West Regional. (Last year, they were a 20 seed.) They will begin play Thursday at the Tumble Creek Club in Cle Elum, Washington, which is about a 90-minute drive from Seattle. Eight teams will advance from each of the three regional sites.
“I don’t know a lot about the course to be honest,” Oehrlein admitted.
Even though the University of Washington is hosting the regional, it’s not the Huskies’ home course. Ziegler is from Canby, Oregon, which is about a half-hour from Portland and four hours from Cle Elum. She has played one of the three courses at the Suncadia Resort.
“Just not the one we’re playing on,” said Oehrlein. “What I know is that it’s tight and tree-lined. It’s in the mountains and there’s a lot of elevation. Obviously, the ball will carry a little further when you’re out there but we’ll adjust pretty quickly.”
Oehrlein is confident the experienced players will set the tone in making necessary adjustments. Why would it be any different now in May than it was in September when they were beginning to shape their team identity in South Carolina? Leadership has been one of the key storylines all season.
“We’ve had a great group of upperclassmen who have had a really big impact on our program,” he said. “It’s about habits. It doesn’t matter what sport it is, you play the way you practice. It’s an old coaching cliché, but it’s still very true.
“There’s a tremendous amount of discipline -- the sport is about discipline, the discipline on the golf course when you’re playing and competing -- but the tone is set in practice; the discipline to drill and work on fundamentals and execution.
“That’s where they have excelled and have brought to the program and it carries through to the younger players because that’s what they see. They don’t know anything different. Kris Yoo has been a great leader from that perspective. Kim Dinh has been tremendous on that side of things.”
Oehrlein also mentioned the leadership skills of Lindsay Danielson, the only graduation loss from last season’s NCAA team. Even without Danielson, Oehrlein looked at the returning players and concluded, “I thought we were pretty good.”
Because Danielson was so special, he said, “We needed an impact form someone new -- we needed someone to come in and fill that role. It ended up being Brooke. She really gave us a spark. While she received most of the attention, we have some other good young players in the program.”
All of which bodes well for the future of Wisconsin golf. But the focus, for now, is still on this team and what the Badgers can do on the national stage this season, especially since Yoo, Ziegler, Dinh and Nelson contributed to last season’s successful run.
On the strength of that experience, Oehrlein said, “I hope they just find some comfort and they’re confident. There’s a lot of energy, a lot of nervousness, a lot of excitement and it’s all good. But having been through it before, it should be easier for them to settle into those early rounds.”
Oehrlein cited the togetherness of the group -- “Good chemistry, good leadership,” he said -- and sensed during a recent practice that this team isn’t about to just settle for getting to regionals.
“They’re going in with the mindset that they’re not just satisfied with getting there,” he said.
They want to do more; they want to get to nationals again.
“I’m proud of them,” Oehrlein said. “I’ve really enjoyed the season.”