May 20, 2013
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Getting to the 2013 NCAA Women’s Golf Championship has been a decade in the making and represents a step towards convincing others what Wisconsin coach Todd Oehrlein already knows about the viability of his program in staying the course and fulfilling expectations on grander stages.
Culminating his 10th season on the job with his first and the school’s second-ever trip to nationals, Oehrlein pointed out, “A goal of every program is to move into the elite level and upper echelon, so that when people think of serious golf programs, they think of your program.
“That’s something we’ve worked for and we’re working towards,’’ he said resolutely.
“When the best players think of quality schools -- great institutions where they know that they’re not only going to get a great degree but they’re also going to be challenged competitively and athletically -- we want them to think of Wisconsin golf.’’
The Badgers will get to measure their progress among the elite programs starting Tuesday when they open play in the NCAA tournament on the University of Georgia golf course in Athens, Ga. The format will consist of 72 holes -- 18 holes each day through Friday -- on the 6,372-yard, par-72 layout.
Singling out his golfers, Oehrlein said, “I’m proud of what they’ve done and how they’ve played, and I’m excited, too, about the step that we’ve taken from a program’s perspective. The competition is elite there, a really strong field. But it’s another opportunity to establish and prove yourself.’’
|“It’s a great step; it’s something we’ve worked hard for,” Oehrlein said. “But we also want to make sure that we go down there and we compete.”
The only other time that the Badgers have competed in the national tournament was 2003, when they finished 24th in the team standings in what was Dennis Tiziani’s 14th and final season as the UW head coach. So what does it mean to Oehrlein and his program to take this step?
“Just that -- I think it’s a step,’’ he said. “It’s a great step; it’s something we’ve worked hard for. But we also want to make sure -- and this is what I’ve been talking to them about -- that we go down there and we compete. You want to capitalize on the momentum, because it is a step.’’
Oehrlein doesn’t want his players to be satisfied by merely qualifying for nationals, especially since “loving to compete’’ is something that he’s always emphasizing to them. “We’ve tried to make it a foundation of what we do in our program,’’ he said. “You have to love to compete.’’
Asked about what might be reasonable expectations for their first NCAA tourney exposure, he said, “I just want them to continue to take steps forward and to improve as players. They’ve done that in the last three weeks to a month; they’ve continued to develop and get better.’’
That was never more evident than during the NCAA Central Regional (May 9-11) at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club in Norman, Okla. The Badgers were the No. 20 seed in the 24-team field. “I thought the seed was fair,’’ Oehrlein said. “But I knew we were better than a typical 20th seed.’’
How much better? Only the top eight advance.
Oehrlein sensed that his golfers were ready for the impending challenge. “They felt confident about it,’’ he said. “It was a good golf course for us, too. Four of the five girls had played there before. They were familiar with it, so there was a comfort and a confidence going into it (regionals).’’
In 2011, Oehrlein was named the Big Ten’s Co-Coach of the Year after leading the Badgers to a fourth-place finish at the league meet. That team advanced to the NCAA Central Regional -- UW’s first trip since 2003 -- in Notre Dame, Ind., where Wisconsin was a No. 18 seed and ended up 15th.
“Our mindset was just a little bit different than two years ago when we had been here,’’ he said of the return trip to regionals. “I always knew that we had the potential to put up low numbers at the right time. We have throughout the course of the year. There’s a little bit of firepower in this group.
“We’ve had teams in the past where a player or two could shoot 70 or something like that. But a good round would be a 73 or 74, whereas with this group, all five players have the ability on a given day to go out and shoot a 69 or 70 or something along those lines if they put it together.’’
|Kris Yoo's school- and course-record 65 in the final round helped the Badgers advance through the NCAA Central Regional.
Kris Yoo, a junior from Schaumburg, Ill., did exactly that by shooting a school- and course-record 65 in the final round of the regional. In recording seven birdies -- zero bogeys -- Yoo bounced back from a second-round 80 and finished tied for 11th with a one-over-par total of 217 (72-80-65) for the 54-hole tourney.
“The 80 was more of an aberration than the 65,’’ Oehrlein said. “Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t go into the second round thinking she was going to shoot 65. But she has been practicing well and playing well. She’s a talented player and she’s very strong mentally.
“What was really exciting about it (her 65) was that it was an easy round from the standpoint that she was never really in trouble. She was just really steady and solid from the first tee shot to the last putt. It wasn’t a rollercoaster ride. When she had the opportunities to score, she capitalized.
“The 80 was a little out of character. In the middle of the round, she lost her rhythm and the round just got away from her. Between rounds, we talked about the reasons why she lost some of the momentum and how she would handle that the next day if the same situation presented itself.
“I wanted to make sure that she learned from it and didn’t lose that confidence. It sure showed a lot of toughness and competitiveness to bounce back the way she did. Given the stage, and the moment, and what was at stake, it was a huge round.’’
Aaren Ziegler, a sophomore from Canby, Ore., finished five strokes behind Yoo with a 222 (76-73-73). “Aaren put up two really big rounds for us at the Big Ten tournament,’’ Oehrlein said, “and she really started to come into her own and started to play solid at that point.’’
Kimberly Dinh, a sophomore from Midland, Mich., almost matched Ziegler with a 223 score (73-76-74) at regionals. “Her short game and scoring are her strengths,’’ said Oehrlein. “She works hard at what she does and when she gets her putter going, she can put up some good numbers.’’
Lindsay Danielson, a senior from Osceola, Wis., birdied and made par on her final two holes in Norman to help seal Wisconsin’s trip to Athens and nationals. “Lindsay has been a great leader for us,’’ Oehrlein said. “I’m thrilled to see her get a chance to play on the final stage. I’m proud of what she has done.’’
|“There’s a little bit of firepower in this group,” Oehrlein said. “All five players have the ability on a given day to go out and shoot a 69 or 70 if they put it together.”
Alexis Nelson, a junior from Mason, Ohio, also had a big influence on the overall team performance at regionals by ending up with a 231 total, just six strokes behind Danielson. “Alexis has had a great second half of the spring,’’ said Oehrlein. “She continues to get better.’’
What bodes well for these golfers in preparation for Tuesday’s opening round is Oehrlein’s championship pedigree as a coach. At UW-Eau Claire, he knew nothing but success at the national level. Four of his teams finished in the top five, highlighted by the 2001 team that won the NCAA Division III title.
At Wisconsin, he has not dwelled on things that are out of his control -- “You have some inherent challenges with the weather and being a northern school,’’ he said -- instead he has sold the positives including the prestige of a UW degree and “our wonderful campus and city.’’
Results and rewards are an integral part of his recruiting pitch, too.
“When you have opportunities to have success and you realize some accomplishments,’’ he said, “it sends the message to recruits and the rest of your team that A) it is possible, and, B) you’re not forced and obligated to take a back seat to other (programs).’’
It doesn’t hurt to have a championship-caliber golf course like University Ridge and a state-of-the art indoor facility like the UW Golf Training Center, which features all the amenities. “It will make a huge difference in developing our players year-round,’’ he said. “That had always been the challenge.’’
Not any more.
“It was a great winter to have it,’’ he acknowledged.
It also served nicely as a “Plan B’’ last Friday morning.
“We talk about the building not just being a winter facility,’’ Oehrlein said. “So here it is -- our last practice before we’re leaving Saturday for the national championships -- and with thunderstorms in the area, we would have been kind of stuck, maybe we’d even have to cancel practice. That’s not ideal.’’
But he couldn’t think of a more ideal scenario than Wisconsin being in the Final Four -- the Badgers are among four Big Ten programs that are still teeing it up. Thus, in search for a little national respect and acceptance, he has Georgia on his mind, and what this step could potentially mean.
“I think it will help recruiting,’’ he said, “without question.’’