Sweet-swinging Viks prepare to defend title

With only six days left before the Big Sky championship, the women’s golf team is hoping that a strong team showing last week and a season-best performance by its best player are indicators that a third consecutive Big Sky title is on the way.

Last Monday and Tuesday the Vikings beat out six higher-ranked teams to finish a season-best fourth in the BYU Dixie Classic held in St. George, Utah. Then, in the team’s final tune-up for the Big Sky championship, the Viks finished 10th out of 15 teams in the Peg Barnard California Collegiate, held over the weekend at Stanford. Despite the low finish there was reason for optimism as the team’s scoring leader, senior Sarah Tiller, rebounded from a less-than-memorable Dixie Classic showing with her best 36-hole performance of the year. The Viks also beat in-state rival Oregon State.

The strong showings helped to erase sour memories of a second-to-last place finish in the Mountain View Collegiate two weeks ago and signaled that the team may be peaking at the right time.

“My team is very confident and we’ve been in situations like this before,” fourth-year coach Felicia Johnston said. “We’re coming into the part of the season where we feel comfortable.”

Senior Jeana Lee paced the Viks to fourth place in the Dixie Classic with a strong second round after struggling to a weather-hampered 12-over-par 84 in the first round. Inclement weather resulted in the cancellation of the day’s second round, shortening the tournament from 54 to 36 holes. But Tuesday she bounced back with six birdies to shoot par, her fifth par-or-better round since coming to PSU from St. Mary’s High School four years ago.

Lee was not alone in enjoying the improved conditions Tuesday. Tiller was the only Viking who scored worse on Tuesday, shooting an 84 a day after braving the elements for a solid 79 on Monday.

Rachel Newren of BYU had the top finish with a two-round total of 149. Twenty-sixth ranked UNLV led the tournament wire-to-wire and finished 21 strokes ahead of PSU with a tournament total of 617 strokes.

Tiller bounced back four days later to finish eighth out of the Stanford tournament’s 80 entrants with a five-over-par 147 for the two rounds. Junior Danielle Reilly cut 11 strokes off her first round to shoot 86-75=161, good enough for 47th and second best on PSU.

Washington State’s Kim Welch shot two under for the tournament to take individual honors and the University of Washington women finished atop the 15-team field.

The Vikings will now turn their attention to the Big Sky Conference Championship April 18-20 in Arizona. Despite the loss of last year’s team scoring leader Rebecca Randolph, Big Sky coaches picked the Viks to win their third consecutive Big Sky title in this year’s preseason poll.

Last year, Randolph helped lead the team to two tournament victories and five top-five finishes before it won the Big Sky championship, but so far this year the team is yet to win a tournament and has only one top-five finish.

“What’s happened this year is that the competition has improved a lot throughout the country,” Johnston said, admitting that the lack of a tournament victory to date surprised her. “Teams that we have typically beaten have improved dramatically.”

Despite the team’s lack of tournament victories, it is still on pace to lower its team scoring average for the fourth consecutive year.

It’s no coincidence that Johnston came to PSU four years ago. She has won the Big Sky Coach of the Year award the last two years and has lowered the scoring average by over 15 strokes since taking over. She has also succeeded in luring top recruits to the Park Blocks.

One of those top recruits, Haley Brown, a freshman from Texas, has become an immediate contributor. Her scoring average is third-best on the team and has been critical to compensating for Randolph’s departure. Johnston marveled at her rapid development and said Brown is “very close to shooting great rounds every time out.”

Johnston is confident her team’s depth and talent will help it stave off the other Big Sky schools but thinks the relatively easy course the tournament is played on will open the door to all the competing teams.

“Any team that goes and plays well can win,” she said. “Everybody has their head on the chopping block.”

BYU Dixie Classic

Entrada at Snow Canyon, St. George, Utah
April 4-5, 2005
Par 72, 6,151 yards
36 holes, 14 teams, 78 golfers

Team Scores (national ranking in parentheses)
1. UNLV (26), 320-297=617
2. Arkansas (16), 330-301=631
3. Brigham Young (35), 333-303=636
4. Portland State (102), 330-308=638

Portland State Golfers
T11. Jeana Lee, 84-72=156
T13. Danielle Reilly, 82-77=159
T27. Sarah Tiller, 79-84=162
T27. Haley Brown, 85-78=163
T52. Ashley Anast, 89-81=170

Peg Barnard California Collegiate
Stanford G.C., Stanford, Calif.
April 9-10
Par 71, 6,030 yards
36 holes, 15 teams, 80 golfers

Team Scores
1. Washington (6) 287-300=587 +19
2. Washington State (24) 295-295=590 +22
3. Stanford (21) 302-291=593 +25
7. Oregon (30) 312-303=615 +47
10. Portland State (97) 324-312=636 +68
11. Oregon State (70) 313-324=637 +69 13

Portland State Golfers
T8. Sarah Tiller, 73-74=147
T47. Danielle Reilly, 86-75=161
T52. Jeana Lee, 81-81=162
T59. Haley Brown, 84-82=166
78. Ashley Anast, 87-87=174