By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
After advancing through regionals and making it to the NCAA National Championships for the third time in six years, coach Jay Goble and the 17th-ranked Baylor women's golf team breathed a sigh of relief.
"Regionals, in my opinion, is the most stressful tournament of the year," Goble said, "because if you don't get through regionals, you've got to wait 365 days to get a chance to get to nationals again. We're at nationals, we're going to the national championships. So, I feel like we have as good a chance as anybody to go out there and do well and win the thing."
That was the case two years ago, when an under-the-radar Baylor team finished third through 72 holes of stroke play and knocked off Tennessee and Duke before falling to Stanford, 3-2, in the national championship final.
Redshirt sophomore Dylan Kim is the only player from that team still in the lineup, but junior Amy Lee was part of a top-seeded USC team that lost to Stanford in the semifinals. Joining them are senior Maggie Beth Byers, sophomore Maria Vesga and freshman Fiona Liddell.
"I think the ones that haven't been there are kind of leaning on them to know what it's all about," Goble said. "That helps, for sure. Amy's team a couple years ago went pretty far in match play and, obviously, we went really far in match play with Dylan. So, they have a lot of good experience and a lot of good things to talk about with those players. But, they're going to get thrown in the fire. They're going to know what it's about."
At last week's regional in Athens, Ga., the Lady Bears proved at least for one day that they can beat anybody. They shot 6-under-par 282 in the second round, moving up to second place, before hanging on to finish fourth at 13-over 877, nine shots above the cut line.
"I think it gave us a ton of confidence," Goble said. "It showed us that on a hard golf course in a strong field, we can go out and compete with anybody. If we play like we played that second round, I don't think anybody can beat us. I know we have that potential, and the team knows we have that potential."
While Lee and Kim posted top-20 finishes, one of the biggest keys at regionals was Byers turning in three scoring rounds. Back in the lineup after missing the Big 12 Championships, she shot 73-74-75 and tied for 28th at 6-over 222.
"She was amazing, she's such a good golfer," Vesga said of Byers. "This is her last tournament, and I know she's going to give it her all. She bleeds green and gold, she's all for Baylor, just like we all are. And she played amazing. I'm so glad for her."
Bothered by a wrist injury that first flared up a couple years ago, Vesga has struggled in each of the last two tournaments. She tied for 41st out of 45 golfers at the Big 12 tournament and then tied for 43rd with Liddell at 10-over 226 last week.
"It's been frustrating, just because it's bad timing," said Vesga, who still ranks third on the team with a 73.62-stroke average. "It's gotten better with therapy and everything. It still hurts a little, but I'm ready to go at nationals."
Baylor is paired with Texas and California in the first group off the back nine for Friday's first round at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., with tee times between 7:30 and 8:14 a.m. The top 15 teams through 54 holes advance to Monday's final round of stroke play, with the top eight teams qualifying for the match play quarterfinals.
"It's nationals, there's a lot more pressure, but in my mind I think of it as any other tournament," said Lee, who is Baylor's first Big 12 Player of the Year. "We're out there to win. We're one of the best teams out there, and we're going to be somebody to beat. . . . I believe our team has a huge amount of talent. We haven't played to our potential yet, and it would be incredible to play great at nationals."
Live scoring is available at www.golfstat.com.