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Tuesday May 8, 2012Gators Women's Golf Team Takes Aim at Back-to-Back NCAA Championship Berths – and Progress in Right Direction

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On a campus loaded with successful sports programs, progress is often measured by one standard above all others: an ability to consistently compete nationally.

That mantra holds true across the board. According to Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley's vision, success in lacrosse and gymnastics is just as important as in football and men's basketball.

Foley provides the resources and the coaches and players are expected to provide the results. That's the way it works.

When former Gators women's golf coach Jill Briles-Hinton abruptly resigned three years ago after 11 seasons, here is what Foley said:

"I accept Jill's decision because I believe she made it in the best interest of this program. The women’s golf team has had some shining moments under Jill and the players have traditionally performed well in the classroom. We wish her well in her future ventures. Our vision is that the women’s golf team is consistently among the contenders at the NCAA Championships. That simply hasn’t happened and now we begin a search for a coach that shares that vision."

Foley's search ended with the hiring of up-and-comer Jan Dowling, a collegiate golfer at Kent State who later served as an assistant at her alma mater and for one season at Duke before taking over the Gators.

In her second season a year ago, Dowling guided the Gators back to the NCAA Championships, where they finished 10th. To get there, the Gators played one of their finest rounds in postseason history by shooting a combined 285 – only five shots off the school record for lowest team round -- during the final round of the NCAA East Regional in Daytona Beach.

The Gators have an opportunity to return to the NCAA Championships starting Thursday in the three-day NCAA East Regional at Penn State. Currently ranked No. 14, Florida hasn't qualified for back-to-back NCAA Championships in six years.

So if the Gators can finish in the top eight and advance, that is the kind of progress Foley had in mind when he tapped the then-28-year-old Dowling to lead the program in June 2009.

The Gators seem to be peaking at the right time, finishing fourth in the SEC Championships last month – their highest finish in four years – and winning their own SunTrust Gator Invitational in March. They followed that performance by finishing third in the Liz Murphey Classic in Athens, Ga.

"We hope Happy Valley is happy,'' Dowling said Monday. "The whole reason I set the schedule the way I did is to prepare for this tournament and Nationals. Our team has been playing against great fields and on great courses all year. They are prepared."

The Gators will be tested on Penn State's Blue Course, which features more than 60 bunkers and eight water hazards. The 24-team tournament field also provides a stiff test, featuring eight teams that won their conference championships and eight teams currently ranked.

Senior Andrea Watts finished a team-best 15th overall at last year's NCAA Championships. She graduated on Sunday with an advertising degree and is aiming to do whatever she can to make sure Florida's season doesn’t come to an end on Saturday.

"We're all itching to go,'' said Watts, who carries a 76.33 scoring average into the tournament. "It's not really going to hit me [I'm done with school] until the golf season is over. I want to make it to Nationals to go out with a bang."

At last year's NCAA East Regional at LPGA International in Daytona, Isabelle Lendl's final-round 68 was the highlight. Lendl carries a stroke average of 78.04 into this week's tournament, but the Gators have the firepower to advance if Lendl fails to recapture some of her touch.

SEC Freshman of the Year Camilla Hedberg was in middle school in Spain the last time Florida made back-to-back NCAA Finals appearances in 2006. In her first season at UF Hedberg leads the team with a 72.91 stroke average over 24 rounds.

The lineup also features senior Evan Jensen (74.20) and junior Mia Piccio (73.83).

Jensen sees a team more seasoned than last year's squad that advanced by delivering the goods during a pressure-packed final round.

"We were kind of going into it [last year] with less expectations,'' Jensen said. "To finish the way we did and make Nationals, we all want to repeat that. I think our experience from last year and handling it the way we did down the stretch under pressure is really going to benefit us."

The Gators finished finals last week so their focus is squarely on golf. Florida will take a practice round on Wednesday in Happy Valley on a course Dowling won on as a freshman at Kent State in 1998.

"I've got some good vibes there,'' she said.

Dowling doesn't recall a lot about the course but knows the grass in the rough will be longer than what the Gators typically practice on in Florida. To help prepare for the conditions the Gators have been hitting extra chip shots out of longer-than-normal grass at their practice facility.

The team hasn't talked about what it would mean for the program to reach back-to-back NCAA Championships.

"We just need to treat it as another tournament and not treat it as a do-or-die type of thing,'' Jensen said. "I think that's the best way to handle it."

Watts agreed, adding that there is no need for Dowling to place an extra emphasis on making Nationals.

"We've seen our potential of what we can accomplish as a team even on our less-than-perfect days,'' Watts said. "I don't think she even needs to talk about it. It's at the front of all of our minds."

Whether they talk about it or not, there's no denying it would be progress for a program that once won back-to-back national titles in 1985 and '86.

Those faded days are recorded in black-and-white photos in the team's online media guide. There is new history to make now.

"We set some goals at the beginning of the year and the next step in the process is qualifying for nationals,'' Dowling said. "It's a tough tournament. You've got to play solid. The big thing is that four of them know they can do it. That is a huge confidence booster for them.

"It's really the most exciting tournament in college golf I think. Once you are at the national championship, it's exciting, but you have to get there first."

 

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