Paladins claim sixth SoCon title with Women’s Golf Team win
It’s already been a banner year for the Furman athletic program, but the University isn’t finished sending teams to NCAA tournaments just yet.
A few months after Paladin squads won a record five Southern Conference titles during the fall season and claimed the bids to the NCAAs that came with them, the Women’s Golf team pushed the total to six when Furman captured its second consecutive league title on April 12 at Savannah Quarters Country Club in Pooler, Ga.
The reward is a trip to the NCAA regional tournament in Bryan, Texas, that begins Thursday and runs through Saturday, where Furman will be looking to advance to its first NCAA Championship since 2008. To do so, the Paladins must finish in the top six out of 18 schools.
Coach Kelley Hester’s young team tied a school record with four tournament wins in 2014-15 behind the dominant play of Taylor Totland ’17, who earned two medalist honors, but at the Raleigh, N.C., regional that youth combined with windy conditions to end the season with a 10th-place finish. The Paladins weren’t as flashy this season, winning one fewer tournament and not having an individual medalist, but Hester says her group has quietly gotten much better.
That’s evidenced by a climb in Golfweek’s national rankings from 32nd at the end of last year to 20th entering this weekend fueled by the rise of 2015 SoCon Freshman of the Year Alice Chen ’18 and 2016 SoCon Freshman of the Year Haylee Harford ’19, who have both been as good as Totland – the 2014 Freshman of the Year.
“We actually have three players who are within three-tenths of a stroke of each other, so they kind of swap back and forth from week to week as to who the No. 1 player is,” Hester said.
Never was that parity more on display than during the SoCon Championship. Though Chattanooga’s Megan Woods beat Chen after a five-hole playoff to take the individual title, Chen (+2), Totland (+3) and Harford (+3) swept spots two through four, with Valentina Romero ’16, the team’s only senior, finishing tied for fifth at 5-over par.
In 2014-15, Totland was more than a stroke better than her teammates, but as of Monday Chen (73.3), Totland (73.5) and Harford (73.6) were nearly tied for top honors, with Romero and Jacqueline Bendrick ’18, who will be the Paladins’ fifth player in Texas, both averaging 75.0 per round. That balance will be critical to Furman’s hopes against a regional field that includes No. 3 UCLA, No. 6 Georgia, No. 11 Arizona, No. 14 Kent State, and No. 23 Texas A&M.
“The bottom line is you’ve got to out and play well to move through,” Hester, in her fourth year, said. “I’m familiar with the golf course, and it actually has similar grass to what we would have here. When it gets really tricky is when you get shipped out and you’re just playing a totally different kind of grass, like bent-grass fairways with big fescue rough that we just couldn’t possibly prepare for. But the surfaces are going to be pretty similar. This golf course really favors good ball strikers, and I would consider our five players to be in that category.”
With 23 trips to the national tournament and a national championship in 1976, the Furman women’s golf program is used to the spotlight. The individuals on this team, however, are not. Hester hopes the experience they gained last year will help this time around.
“I know Alice (Chen) articulated that she was pretty nervous (last year),” Hester said. “I think all the girls just get kind of excited. Having been there, now maybe this year they won’t be quite so. Just being there really helps you know what to be prepared for. It adds a little bit of a comfort level. We’ve seen a lot of the teams that are going to be at this regional, and we’ve beaten a lot of them.”
The 24-team NCAA Championship will be held May 20-25 in Eugene, Ore.
Men’s team takes third, Howell second at SoCon
Junior Bryce Howell ’17 tied for second at minus-5 to lead Furman to a third-place finish at the 2016 Southern Conference Men’s Golf Championship held at Pinehurst No. 9 in Pinehurst, N.C.
The Paladins finished just three shots behind winner East Tennessee State. Austin Reeves ’12 is the last Furman player to win the SoCon, a feat he accomplished in 2010—the same year the Paladins last captured the team title.
Samford upsets Furman in SoCon women’s tennis final
No. 4 Samford edged No. 1 Furman 4-3 last month in the championship match of the league tournament at Chattanooga, Tenn., to hand the Paladins their first and only Southern Conference women’s tennis loss of the season.
Furman concluded the year with a 15-9 record. Ansley Speaks ’17 was named the league Player of the Year, while Katarina Weymouth ’19 was named Freshman of the Year. Paladin coach Adam Herendeen earned Coach of the Year honors in his first season at the helm.
Speaks, also the league POY in 2014, finished the spring with a 14-8 record at No. 1 singles. Weymouth was 16-5 at No. 2 singles.
The Men’s Tennis team also lost in the SoCon tournament championship, falling 4-0 to top-seeded ETSU. Furman, the third seed, finished 13-11.