May 1, 2018
By Brad Muller | More Features
South Carolina women’s golf is once again in the hunt for a national championship, and they’d like to gather some more hardware on the way. The Gamecocks don’t have to finish first at the NCAA Regional later this week to qualify for the NCAA Championship, but taking home regional championships has become somewhat of a tradition for the No. 10 Gamecocks after winning three straight titles and five since 2010.
“We’re trying to go win it,” said head coach Kalen Anderson. “Certainly, we want to try to finish in the top six, but we’re going out there to try to win it. That’s what we try to do every year. Things have fallen for us in the past, and we’ve been able to win several.
“I think it’s a little bit of our believing in what we do, and it’s a process that has paid off year after year. The girls believe in a process, and they’ve done a great job. As a group, they rise at the right occasion. They’re gamers. They know when it’s time to really dig in and get the job done. That’s what I love about this group. They’re really competitive and really feisty. They won’t back down.”
“It’s going to be really hard, but playing the SECs is really hard. Our goal is always to win,” said senior Ainhoa Olarra.
The quest for a national championship begins with 72 teams and 24 individuals selected to compete at one of four regional championship sites from May 7-9, with South Carolina heading to the San Francisco Regional to compete at TPC Harding Park. Each of the four region’s top six teams and top three individuals not on the advancing teams will advance to the 2018 NCAA Championship, set for May 18-23 at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Reaching the postseason and having success are ingrained in the culture of the South Carolina program.
“It’s something we expect in our program,” Anderson said. “We expect to get there. It’s not an easy task; that’s for sure. Everybody brings their ‘A-game’ to regionals. It’s a hard tournament to get through. It’s the major qualifying tournament for the year, with the most pressure. Everybody brings their best golf that week, and we don’t take anything for granted at all.”
“We set a very high standard for what we expect here, and we’ve created a culture where these kids have bought in,” said Puggy Blackmon, associate head coach and director of golf. “We don’t have a lot of depth this year, so there was more pressure on everyone to step up, and they’ve done an incredible job.”
After finishing second at SECs, it has made us more excited and confident. We’re going into the regionals the right way.
South Carolina is one of four schools to reach the NCAA Championship in each of the last eight years. The Gamecocks took first at the NCAA Columbus Regional in 2017, and sophomore Ana Pelaez earned the individual title there last year, while former Gamecock Katelyn Dambaugh (T3) and Olarra (T5) also grabbed top-five showings. Having players who have been there before is definitely a plus, and the Gamecocks have had different players step up throughout the year, including Olarra, who recently won the individual title at the SEC Championship.
“To Ainhoa’s credit, it’s been an all-year thing for her,” Anderson said. “She has established herself as one of the best players in the country. We’ve had our best player, who has broken every record, graduate every year, and somebody always steps up in her place and does the same thing the next year with (Justine) Dreher (2011-2015), Dambaugh (2013-2017), and Olarra doing the same thing. For them to step up and see the role they have to fill makes me feel good as a coach. They take pride in the program to do what they need to do for the program.”
“We take pride in that our kids get better while they’re here, across the board,” Blackmon said. “They get better because they’re willing to work at it, otherwise they wouldn’t be here.”
The Gamecocks earned runner-up honors at the SEC Championship last weekend, falling to No. 3 Arkansas in match play after finishing first through the stroke play rounds. Anderson likes that her team is playing its best golf at the end of the year.
“It was a heart-breaking loss in match-play,” Anderson said of the SEC Championship. “The best thing to take away from it is that we’re playing our best golf right now. We’ve had people step up and come out of their funk a little bit to get their games where they need to be and show what they’re capable of. I couldn’t be any happier about that. Maybe we can get a little redemption here at regionals and at nationals. I think we are peaking at the right time.
“L.K. (Lois Kaye Go) has been really steady. She’s been unbelievable. Marion Veysseyre has stepped up this spring as well. She told me that she thought she has grown up this spring, and she really has. She has really matured and got comfortable with her game and her strengths. Then you had Ana (Pelaez) and Anita (Uwadia) step up for us at SECs. So, it’s all coming together, and it’s great momentum heading into regionals.”
“Sometimes it’s just confidence,” Olarra said. “After finishing second at SECs, it has made us more excited and confident. We’re going into the regionals the right way. We’re doing things pretty well. The format at nationals is stroke play and match play, just like the SEC (Championship). Having so many internationals on the team, we’re sort of used to that and we’re always excited to do it. Hopefully we will play well at regionals again.”
“These six young ladies have grown really close,” Blackmon added. “There’s a lot of competition with the way we do things. They’re a diverse group. When they walk off the course, they’re dancing and singing and having a good time. I like it because it keeps me awake when I’m driving the van!”
South Carolina is making its 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, its 25th overall NCAA Regional appearance, and its ninth under Anderson. The Gamecocks enter the NCAA postseason with top-five finishes in three of its five spring events, which included a victory at the 2018 Florida State Match-Up.
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