April 15, 2008

Birdies and Pars Aplenty for These Eagles

April 15, 2008

By Darren Shimp

Amid the grandeur and accolades of this season's successes for the 2007-08 Eastern Washington University women's golf team, there is still one more milestone that has yet to be reached.

A Big Sky Conference Championship.

Selected to finish first by the conference's coaches earlier this season, the Eagles have lived up to the hype, as they have placed higher in tournaments than their in-conference foes 27 out of 30 times. Two of those three defeats came on Thursday (April 10) at the Big Sky Conference Preview in Phoenix, Ariz. EWU finished third in the one-day 18-hole warm-up, three strokes behind Northern Arizona and two behind Montana.

"We just did not attach a lot of significance to that," said Eagle head coach Marc Hughes. "It was really windy. It was pretty straight forward from tee to green. They had to deal with the elements, and the greens were a little fast."

Regular season performances carry exactly zero bearing when it comes to the conference championship in golf. Unlike the basketball tournament, which may include perks such as hosting privileges and seeding advantages, the Big Sky Conference Women's Golf Championship is a clean slate from what has happened since the season started back in September.

"You just have to go through the process (at the Championship) and take care of everything possible," said Hughes. "I look at the things that we need to work on and hope that we are better at those things at the end of the week than we were at the beginning of the week. Believe it or not, we're still shaking off the rust from the winter."

For the most part, the long and laborious winter limited the Eagles' practices to chipping and putting in their racquetball court-turned-practice green. Aside from a trip to Liberty Lake, where the last four holes of practice at Meadowwood Golf Course were played in snow, and an occasional nine holes here or there, the only rounds of golf have been played when they travel to their tournaments.

"We haven't had the chance to be outside like some of the Big Sky teams," said Chelsey Lollar, the sole senior on the squad. "We had the mindset that we wanted to win that tournament (last week) to send an even bigger message to all the Big Sky teams after we had won the previous tournament that week.

"Fatigue played a factor; we had played a total of 108 holes in five days (including practice rounds). It takes a little while to get into a groove when you're that tired, and then you kind of forget about that as your mental game gets cohesive. When you're only playing 18 holes and it's a one-round, one-shot tournament, it's kind of hard to get yourself mentally ready."

The Eagles had come off a win at the Cowgirl Classic Invitational in nearby Chandler, Ariz., from April 7-8, which was a 36-18 format. This meant the players played two rounds of golf one day, then one more round the next.

Fortunately for the team, and Hughes, the chemistry on the team remained good despite the long time spent away from Cheney.

"We were together a lot last week," said Hughes. "Things can get a little dicey when you're together that much, but they cruised right through it without any problems whatsoever. I'm really proud of them for that. It's not easy.

"The dynamic has been good this year, and the two freshmen (Big Sky Freshman of the Year Kristina Gargaro and Kellie Holmstedt) have added a nice element to the team."With the long season coming toward its end, Lollar has taken it upon herself to rally the Eagles to a strong finish in Arizona.

"I'm going to do everything in my power to pump people up this next week at conferences," said Lollar. "If I don't play well, I'm definitely going to be disappointed. As a senior, you want to finish strong...but it's a team sport, so hopefully everybody plays well."

Another of the team's leaders, junior Chloe Nelson, acknowledged the differences in climate and terrain that will be vital to Eastern's success in the desert.

"If the wind picks up, we have to tweak our strategy to it," said Nelson. "We would hit a lot of knock-down (low trajectory) shots coming into it. We're used to hitting the ball pretty high coming into the greens. There, you can't do that. The wind would just take it.

"Because of where it is, the rough is a lot shorter than what it is up here. Hitting it into the rough is like the first cut up here. It's pretty easy to get through. Some places it's like hitting from the fairway with how short it is."

Keeping the ball in play shouldn't be a problem for EWU, given the layout of the course, as there are not many hills nor water hazards to contend with. Instead, this week's practices will focus on what needs to be done from 100 yards and in, including putting.

"We're a long hitting team," said junior Marli Mikulecky, who will be focusing on her wedge shots for improvement. "There are some par 5s we could possibly reach in two. That's going to be an advantage for us."

The progression of the women's golf team at Eastern in its 15 years of existence can be attributed to Hughes, who is in his 10th season in Cheney. The team has finished in the top half of the conference the last five years.

"My goal coming in 10 years ago was to continually build the program," said Hughes. "I don't measure the team in a global scale by whether or not we win the conference or go to regionals, but that's a goal and we'd like to do it. Look back at where it (the program) was and where it is. We have always had great people in the program, and the play is now phenomenal as well."

This season marks the first time the program has had so many honors. These include six Big Sky Player of the Week awards won by five different players, three of the five spots on the Big Sky Conference's First Team (Gargaro, Mikulecky and Nelson) and one selection to the Second Team (Holmstedt). Additionally, Lollar had the 11th-best scoring average in the league, finishing one spot away from being selected to the Second Team.

However, the recognition doesn't account for much to one Eagle.

"I'm excited to be named to that team. The award reflects the success we've had," said Mikulecky. "But it doesn't mean a lot once we tee it up Monday."

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