Sophomore Olivia Weber has traveled extensively to prepare
Feb. 24, 2011
The University of Montana women's golf team will open the second season of collegiate play Friday at the two-day, Northern Arizona-hosted Red Rocks Invitational in Sedona Ariz. Following the strongest fall showing by a Montana squad, the Grizzlies will look to experience and a superior mindset to overcome a historically weak showing in their first spring event.
With the Grizzlies picked third in a recent Big Sky Conference poll behind Northern Arizona and Portland State, fans of Grizzly golf may warrant the question, "Haven't they (coaches) been paying attention?"
Montana finished out one of its most successful fall tournament schedules in years, last October, with a second place finish at the LPGA Xavier invitational. In that event, the Grizzlies bested 13 teams, many of which were based in competitive southeastern conferences and held top-50 distinctions according to golfstat.com, which plays host to NCAA collegiate head-to head standings.
The Montana fall squad played to a team average of 308 strokes per round, the best recorded average by a UM round by over three strokes. The 2009-10 Grizzly squad, consisting of the same athletes, averaged 311 strokes per round at seasons end, which was a full five strokes better than the Montana team that took the 2006 Big Sky Championship and averaged over 316.
Though the 2010 Grizzlies may have fielded the best team in the history of Montana Golf, the group finished a dismal fifth at the Big Sky Conference Tournament. That memory has thus shaded winter polls, but has likewise made a difference in the Griz athletes' mindset.
UM coach Joanne Steele said, "In last year's championship, it was a single round that cost us dearly in the event. Our other two rounds were among the best in the conference. I think the reality of that round really resonated with the girls. They have made a big commitment toward consistency and it was a huge boon to the fall tournament scores."
In Montana's four-tournament fall showing, the Grizzlies handed in head-to-head results against many top teams and showed an appropriate climb in the golfstat rankings. Though starting the fall season ranked around 160th of Division-I teams, the Grizzlies climbed to 112th as of the Feb. 23 release. In that pursuit, the Grizzlies have passed Big Sky favorite Northern Arizona, which sit at 114th and have their sights upon Portland State which sits at 94th, just inside the top 100 teams.
Consistency by Montana athletes, which has improved the Grizzly team average by three full strokes over the previous season, has also launched Grizzly leaders into favorable statistical positions. UM junior Lauren Howell, who leads Montana career and season-best stroke average lists, is now the only Big Sky athlete to rank inside the top 250 NCAA golfers with a stroke average of 75.6.
Senior Carissa Simmons, who finished inside the top two team positions in all of Montana's fall events, has averaged 77.0 per round, passing Grizzly alum Jill Walker for second-best single season average. With several months out of competition, non-ideal winter training options and the knowledge that Montana's first tournament showing has historically been a bit "rusty," the Grizzlies have made a concerted effort to maintain top form. Steele said, "This winter, almost every one of the girls has traveled as much as possible. They have been catching cheap flights to Phoenix, Las Vegas and the like, even heading over to Spokane when their weather has been better than ours."
In addition to practice on real courses, is the advantage given by a mutual commitment to their sport. Steele said, "More than anything, the players are all on the same page. They recognize that this team is something special, and they have that drive to make this year stand out. I think that conference competition has really intensified over the last few seasons, but this team has to know that this is the best chance for them to get a Big Sky Championship since that 2006 team."
This weekend's two-round, 36-hole event at Sedona's Oakcreek Country Club will be a true test as to how sharp the Grizzlies have remained. The field has increased by two teams since the 2010 event, which was won by NAU and Lumberjack Alexa Kim. With All-Big Sky head-to head points on the line, UM will see conference schools Eastern Washington, Idaho State, Montana State, Northern Colorado and Weber State in addition to the Lumberjack hosts.
In addition to Conference competitors, the Grizzlies, who finished 11th in the 2009 event, will see competition at the top from No. 58 Western Michigan, No. 82 Toledo, No. 128 Nevada, No. 130 Eastern Michigan, and Division two and three top-20 teams George Fox University and Grand Canyon.
Grizzly senior Rose Stepanek, of Billings, Mont. was the best-placed Grizzly at last year's Red Rocks Invitational. She said, "The strategy at this first tournament is to come in with the expectation to improve. It is so easy to come in with high expectations, maybe expecting to play as well as you were in the fall. It's important to understand that you are not going to be at your peak. You just can't let those things get to you. You have to admit that you are going to have bad holes--problems in your short-game, and just stay competitive.
"Some of us, Carissa (Simmons) Kasey (Valla) and I will be playing this course for the fourth time. We know what to expect by now.
"Our team is going to rely strongly upon the fact that in golf, you always mature from season-to season. With the experience that we have on the team, we know that we can start out from a stronger position mentally, than we have at this point ever before."
Howell will lead this weekend's lineup, followed by Simmons, Olivia Weber, Stepanek and Ashley Helstrom. Senior Kasey Valla will compete in the individual category, though not combine for team score.
Weekend results from the 6,084-yard Oakcreek course will be available both at nauathletics.com and in daily recaps at gogriz.com.
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