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Women’s Golf: Strong fall has golfers swinging away at spring season

Jack Thornton | Thursday, February 16, 2006

Anyone who has been in sports for a long time knows that a good first half can be wiped out by a sloppy second half. After posting the best single-semester performance in program history, fourth-year coach Debby King said she is making sure the Irish golfers realize they have to be sharper now than ever.

“We did have a team meeting and [King] said that she had some great expectations for us and she expected us to put in more hours and work hard,” said Notre Dame golfer Nariko Nakazaki, who is the national co-leader in birdies with 49. “The main points were that she’ll be there to support us, and to do great this season.”

Last fall, the squad had a slender scoring average of 301.71, the lowest in program history. The Irish – currently ranked No. 30 in the nation by golfstats.com – snatched first-place in the Notre Dame Women’s Invitational and grabbed second-place in both the Lady Razorback Invitaional in October and the Lady Jaguar Invitational in November.

Leading the charge for the team was Nakazaki, whose average round score of 74.18 is more than two strokes better than the program record she set her freshman year.

When the spring season opens next Monday, the team will be going for its third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The feat would be especially impressive considering no Irish team had done it before King arrived in 2001.

“I think it’d definitely show how far we’ve come, especially for the senior class being Coach King’s first recruiting class,” golfer Lauren Gebauer said. “From not even being a top 100 team to being a top 30 team would show a lot of growth, and to leave the program at that level would be a great feeling.”

Since women’s golf has only been an official Big East sport for less than five years, no automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is awarded for placing first in the conference. Thus, the only way for the Irish to make the 21-team Central Regional is to earn an at-large bid. While an invite isn’t assured just yet, the team is focusing on even larger goals.

“Our goal is to beat a 301 average in every tournament we play – that would be our short-term goal – and our team’s long-term goal is to make Nationals,” said golfer Suzie Hayes.

King was more restrained in her assessment.

“We’d like to maintain our position of 30th or better,” she said. “In the past we have faltered a little bit in the spring, so we’ve been working on a better mental game, strength and conditioning,”

The Irish were ranked No. 31 at this point last season, but finished third in the Big East Championship after winning it the previous two years and then placed 18th in the Central Regional.

“Our scoring average compared to any other year was improved, and the fact that we feel that we could’ve done better is a good sign,” Nakazaki said.

When the Irish compete in Central District Classic in Parris, Florida next Monday, they may have to shake off some rust. The team has not played in a tournament since Nov. 8, and thanks to the cold climate of South Bend, the team has had to practice at the Loftus Center.

“I guess there is a disadvantage, but we cover it by doing other stuff like physical training and indoor practices,” Nakazaki said. “The biggest thing is we can’t play on the golf course, but we try to make it up by practing indoors.”

Notre Dame will see warmer weather in the next few weeks, as the Irish play their next three tournaments in Florida, Texas and Hawaii, respectively.

“Traveling is fun first of all, but having to do school work at the same time, missing classes for 2-3 days in a row is kind of hard, but we are playing golf, and that’s what we love to do,” Nakazaki said. “It’s very exciting.”