Tulane women’s golfers happy to return to regionals

With a dominant performance at the Conference USA Championship, the Tulane women’s golf team recaptured the feeling it had in an historic 2012-13 season. The next step is building on that momentum and trying to make more history in the next two weeks.

A year after placing a program-best ninth at the NCAA Championships, Tulane begins play in the East Regional on Thursday at the Southwood Golf Club in Tallahassee, Florida, with the belief it can fare even better.

This, despite some rocky moments along the way as the Green Wave fell from a No. 18 preseason ranking in GolfWorld.com to its current 31. Tulane failed to win a tournament until repeating as C-USA champion April 21-23 in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

The top eight teams at the three-round East Regional advance to the 24-team NCAA Championships in Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 20-23. Tulane, which finished second at the same regional last year, is ranked below 11 of its competitors in the East field.

The Wave had to adjust to the loss of honorable mention All-American Maribel Lopez Porras and the arrival of new coach Lorne Don this season.

Don, an assistant the past 10 years at Michigan State, replaced Andrew Pratt, who left last June to become associate head coach at Auburn. Freshman Belen Goicoechea replaced Porras in a lineup that otherwise returned intact.

“Our whole season, both fall and spring, has been frustrating,” sophomore Madison Opfer said. “As a team, we haven’t quite come together. A couple of us will play really well and then one won’t. We’ll go back and forth. Finally at (the C-USA championships), we all came together at one time.”

They did more than just win the league tournament. They finished with an event-record 8 under par, beating runner-up UTSA by 10 strokes.

It was not quite as lopsided a victory as last year, when they won by 27 strokes, but all the signs were positive.

Goicoechea, who struggled to keep up with her teammates for most of the season, tied for fifth in Gulf Shores by shooting 73-73-70-216. Her scores counted toward the team total each day — the highest among the five golfers is dropped — allowing Tulane to survive a few shaky rounds from it stalwarts.

“She was a very raw talent, very athletic and has really learned a lot about short game and course management,” Don said. “It’s not only a confidence boost for her, but for the rest of the team. They start to see: ‘Oh, we really do have five great players.’ That will strengthen their belief in each other.”

The list includes Emily Pentilla, a sophomore who was named Conference USA women’s golfer of the year and has a team-best stroke average of 72.78.

Junior Gemma Dryburgh, a first-team All-CUSA selection, placed second individually at the C-USA Championships for the second consecutive year.

Opfer and fellow sophomore Silvia Garces aren’t far behind the top two, each boasting stroke averages below 74.

“Our strength is everyone in the lineup has close scoring averages,” Pentilla said. “Everyone can play a lot under par, and that gives confidence to everyone else.”

The challenge has been doing it as a group.

“Through most of the year there was definitely some inconsistency across the board,” Don said. “We’d play two great tournament rounds and then one just terrible round. The bar was set very high last year, which was great. We’re just starting to hit our stride.”

By this point, the players know his coaching style better and he understands their strengths and weaknesses more thoroughly. They hope the payoff comes at regionals and nationals.

“I signed on to build a national powerhouse in women’s golf,” Don said. “I want them to think of themselves as one of the best gold teams in the country each and every year.”