Richard Lord: Williams women's golf to defend national title
After finishing third in the 2014 NCAA Division III Championship following a pair of fifth-place finishes in 2012-13, the Williams College women's golf team focused on completing its steady rise to the top in 2015.
The Ephs accomplished that feat in style, winning the national championship with a dominant 18-shot victory.
Not only was it the first national title in the program's 12-year history, Williams became the first New England women's team to win the national golf championship in NCAA Division I, II or III. On the men's side, no New England school has won a national title since Yale in 1943.
Starting on Tuesday in Houston, the Ephs will begin their title defense after another dominating season that included seven wins in eight tournaments and certainly places them among the favorites in the 72-hole event.
Interim head coach Bill Kangas, who led the Ephs to their 2015 title after replacing Erika DeSanty when she left the program to coach at Division I Princeton, said his team's focus is on the here and now, not last year's history-making victory.
"We don't compare ourselves to last year," said Kangas, who also coaches the men's hockey team. "You can't compare teams. Even if there is one change, it's a different team. This is a new situation and we are not getting ahead of ourselves."
The team's approach, however, remains the same as the one that worked so well last year.
"We have the same mind-set," Kangas said. "We focus on the process. Every time you go to the golf course, you are looking to work hard and improve."
Though it isn't the exact same cast, three of the five golfers -- the top four scores count each day -- who will compete were on last year's team and played big roles in the victory.
Junior Sophie Kitchen, a Canadian who joined the team for the spring season last year after transferring from Division I Minnesota, finished third individually with a 20-over-par 308 total on the tricky par-72 El Campeon course at the Mission Inn and Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla. Sophomore Phoebe Mattana finished eighth at 314 and junior Tracey Kim was 21st at 321.
Playing on a team in what is an individual sport requires that no one quits when a round isn't going well. That proved decisive last year when the Ephs finished 24-over par on the front nine in the third round, but rebounded by playing the back in only 6 over, highlighted by Kitchen's round of 42-35.
"[Sophie] told me that after she shot 42 on the front, she told herself 'they need me to score,'" Shelby Shote, the team's now-graduated captain, said the day after the title victory.
The returning trio's experience certainly will help the entire team, including first-time participants Liz Gudas, a sophomore, and freshman Cordelia Chan.
"They can offer perspective and help them prepare for the trip," Kangas said. "Any time you have been there it helps. ... This is a four-day marathon, you have to take it shot-to-shot and day-to-day."
All five golfers have had strong seasons and any of them could be near the top of the individual leaderboard as the week progresses. Mattana, Kitchen, Gudas and Chan have all recorded individual victories while Kim will be playing in her third NCAA Championship.
"Phoebe has probably been our top performer, but they have all played great and are a confident and special group," Kangas said.
Mattana had a team-best scoring average of 76.64 followed by Chan (78.56), Kitchen (79.58), Gudas (79.75) and Kim (80.31).
Despite being a freshman, Chan had perhaps the season's most impressive performance, firing a 4-under round of 68 at The Orchards on her way to winning the Mount Holyoke Invitational in the fall, earning her a mention in Sports Illustrated's Faces in the Crowd section.
One golfer who won't be playing is team captain Kelly Kung, but that doesn't mean she hasn't had an major impact during her senior season.
"Kelly is amazing," Kangas said. "She has been an incredible leader. She is unselfish and the team has fed off of her for a lot of reasons."
One thing that will be different this time is the golf course — the tournament was played at the Mission Inn the past two years while this year's event is at Oaks Country Club in Houston, which the Ephs will see for the first time today. It is a Arthur Hills design and, according to the club website, features a tight front nine and a links-style back.
"They have had a lot of rain in Houston, but the course is supposed to be in great shape and the weather is expected to be sunny," Kangas said. "We will walk the course [today] and get to play it on Monday."
Based on the regional rankings and some past history, some of the other top team contenders are likely to be Rhodes College, Wittenburg College (last year's runners-up), Texas-Tyler and George Fox University.
Kangas said he expects the Ephs will face stiff competition but admits he doesn't know too much about the other teams. That isn't surprising considering his team's focus on just being the best they can be and improving every day
"They have been working hard and I think they are playing some of their best golf," Kangas said. "We are excited about the opportunity."
To contact Richard Lord: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-281-2226.
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