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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Walker, Norh Carolina face difficult challenge in Athens Regional

   A little over a year ago, I had a chance to speak with Brynn Walker as Radnor’s two-time PIAA Class AAA champion was looking forward to the summer of 2016 and the beginning of her college career at North Carolina.
   Walker couldn’t wait to get to Chapel Hill and get going. There have been the predictable ups and downs for a college freshman playing at a Division I level, but Walker and the Tar Heels, No. 35 in the latest Golfstat rankings, will be teeing it up in an NCAA Regional at the University of Georgia Golf Course in Athens, Ga. beginning Monday.
   The top six teams and top three individuals from a non-advancing school will advance to the NCAA Championship at Rich Harvest Farms in Spring Grove, Ill. It is where so many talented teams and individuals have been working so hard to get to.
   Walker has been in the lineup every step of the way for Jan Mann’s Tar Heels, a feat in itself. The North Carolina lineup has been remarkably stable throughout the year and the five who teed it up in the ACC Championship will likely be the five trying to make it to Rich Harvest Farms when the regional tees off Monday.
   Bryana Nguyen, a junior from Columbia, Md., has played her best golf in the late stages of the spring portion of the schedule. Leslie Cloots, a senior from Belgium, is playing like a senior who knows this is the time that counts. She finished tied for fourth in ACCs at Pawleys Island, S.C.
   Lexi Harkins, a junior from Crystal Lake, Ill., has played some good golf, like the 1-under 71 in the middle round at ACCs, and some not-as-good golf, like the final-round 79 at ACCs.
   Then there is sophomore Kelly Whaley, a sophomore from Farmington, Conn. The daughter of PGA of America vice president Suzy Whaley might very well be the most talented player on the North Carolina roster, but she has had her share of struggles this spring.
   Walker had become friends with Whaley and stayed in almost constant contact with Whaley during her freshman season at North Carolina. Walker almost felt like she had experienced the ups and downs of a freshman year through Whaley and appreciated how much of her experiences Whaley was willing to share to give her future teammate a headstart on her college career.
   I watched a little of Whaley’s first-round match in the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Rolling Green Golf Club last summer against Andrea Lee, the Stanford freshman whose accomplishments, including a run to the quarterfinals at Rolling Green, last summer are almost too long to list.
   Whaley was giving Lee all she wanted until Lee started dropping in putts from Havertown (that’s a little inside Delco stuff there) and went on to claim a 5 and 4 win. Bottom line, though, is Whaley can play. Just making the match-play bracket at the Women’s Amateur is proof enough of that.
For what it’s worth, North Carolina is seeded ninth in the Athens Regional. Seeding is fairly inconsequential in any sport, none more so than golf.
   There are some really good teams, as you would expect, in Athens. The top seed is Alabama, which spent much of the spring as Golfstat’s No. 1 team. The Crimson Tide has fallen back to No. 3 in the latest rankings behind Lee and No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 UCLA, but Alabama is very, very tough.
   The No. 2 seed is No. 7 Georgia, which will be playing on its home course. Alabama and Georgia have been running into each other a lot this spring. Georgia edged the Crimson Tide, 3.5-1.5, in the final of the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic at the UGA course last month. The teams finished in a tie for second in the SEC Championship at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, Ala. behind Florida, which is the top seed in the Columbus Regional.
   Big Ten runnerup Northwestern, ranked 11th, is the third seed, No. 14 Arizona is seeded fourth and No. 18 Baylor is seeded fifth.
   One of the real wild cards in Athens will be North Carolina’s ACC rival, Wake Forest, which is ranked 22nd and seeded sixth. The Demon Deacons have two of the top players in college golf in Sierra Sims, a senior from Austin, Texas, and Jennifer Kupcho, a sophomore from Littleton, Colo. They also have an old friend of Walker’s, junior Erica Herr, a two-time PIAA Class AAA champion at Council Rock North.
   But injuries have hit the Wake Forest lineup hard. If Antonia Eberhard, a sophomore from Germany, and Sierra Brooks, a freshman from Sorrento, Fla. and the runnerup at the 2015 UJ.S. Women’s Amateur, can get back in the lineup, Wake Forest is a formidable team. If not, the Demon Deacons may be looking at a repeat of the ACC Championship when they finished last.
   I would consider North Carolina as a team completely capable of outplaying its No. 9 seed and crashing the top six.
   Another dangerous team in Athens has to be No. 14 Michigan State, which has won the last two tournaments it’s played, including the Big Ten Championship where the Spartans stunned Northwestern, which appeared to be on its way to an easy team win, with a final-round surge.
   There are no easy roads to Rich Harvest Farms, though. ACC champion Duke and Leona Maguire, the junior from Ireland who is the No. 1 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, are seeded third at the Albuquerque Regional behind No. 1 Stanford and No. 6 Southern California, fabulously talented teams all of them.
   No. 4 Florida might be playing the best golf of anybody and will run into in-state rival Florida State and SEC rivals South Carolina, featuring SEC individual champion Katelyn Dambaugh, and Arkansas in the Columbus Regional.
   Nice to see Notre Dame’s Emma Albrecht, a sophomore from Ormond Beach, Fla., get an invitation to the Columbus Regional as an individual. I have paid a little extra attention to the Irish due to the presence of former Mount St. Joseph standout Isabella DiLisio, the 2013 PIAA Class AAA champion, in their lineup. Albrecht has been the most consistent player all year on a pretty good Notre Dame team.
   No. 2 UCLA, coming off a rampaging win in the Pac-12 Championship, is the top seed in the Lubbock, Texas. There are a bunch of Texas teams, not to mention No. 23 Oklahoma, in Lubbock, led by Big 12 champion Texas, and somehow teams from that neck of the woods always seem to have more of an advantage when they’re playing close to home.
   Some really good golf teams will be heading home next Wednesday when the four regionals conclude. It is a testament to the wealth of worldwide talent that is playing Division I college golf these days. Much like Brynn Walker about this time a year ago, I can’t wait to see it get started.

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