Cullowhee, N.C. - Fresh off a strong second half of the season, the Western Carolina women's golf team heads to southeastern Georgia for the 2016 Southern Conference Women's Golf Championship which opens this weekend.
The 23rd edition of the conference champion-crowning event will be played Sunday through Tuesday, April 10-12 at the Savannah Quarters Country Club in Pooler, Ga. It is the second-straight year the championship event has been played at the par-72, 6,116-yard course. The winner of the 54-hole tournament will earn the SoCon's automatic bid to a NCAA regional, which will be announced live on the Golf Channel during "Golf Central" between 6-7 pm on Monday, April 25.
Five of the nine teams entering the SoCon Championship rank inside the national top 150. In addition to Furman at No. 22 and Chattanooga at No. 65, ETSU is ranked 93rd in the latest Golfstat rankings to give the SoCon three top-100 teams. Mercer is ranked 107th and WCU at No. 141 as five teams grace the national top 150. Furman has two individual golfers ranked just outside the top 100 individually.
"We have great memories of Savannah Quarters from last season; we set a program record and left there last year already looking forward to returning," said WCU head coach Mallory Hetzel on her squad heading to the conference championship. "The final round at Ole Miss was our best of the year. We took a risk traveling so far from home and playing a new golf course, but it paid off. The team is feeling really confident and is excited to get down to Savannah."
Hetzel feels the weather will impact the tournament this year, keeping scores around par.
"The weather forecasts calls for things to be cooler and with more wind than last year. I think that will really play into our favor," Hetzel explained. "We feel like the worse the conditions are, the better we play. Our team embraces the challenge. The wind will keep the birdie count low and make par a good score -- a set-up that suits our style of play."
Furman won the 2015 title with a tournament-record score of 6-under par, 858, claiming the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA regional round. It was the SoCon-record 14th team title for Furman all-time and halted Chattanooga's six-straight championships. The Paladins pulled off the title sweep as Taylor Totland earned individual medalist honors with her tourney-record score of 8-under par, 208, en route to capturing SoCon Women's Golfer of the Year accolades, edging teammate Alice Chen, the runner-up.
The Catamounts came home tied for fourth a season ago, the program's best finish since a fourth-place showing at the 2011 championship. WCU matched a program record-low, 54-hole score with an 891 last spring at the event, which was also three strokes better than it had ever shot at the conference championship.
All told, the 2015 edition of the tournament rewrote the SoCon record book. In addition to Furman breaking the team 54-hole scoring mark, Chattanooga, Samford (881), Western Carolina (891) and Wofford (891) all finished under the previous record of 894, set in 2003.
Western Carolina enters this year's event riding three-consecutive top 10 finishes in its last three events, trending upwards entering the conference championship. WCU's last three team finishes includes a runner-up showing in the Tri-Match held at The Cliffs at Mountain Park, a fifth-place finish at the John Kirk / Panther Intercollegiate and most recently, a seventh-place tally at the Rebel Intercollegiate hosted by Ole Miss.
WCU's scoring five will be led by a pair of seniors making their final appearance in the conference championship event. Kim Mitchell, who paces the Catamounts with a 75.84 scoring average through 25 rounds this season, ranks 13th among all SoCon golfers in 2015-16. The Woodbridge, Va., native has paced WCU in four of the nine seasonal events this year. Her classmate, Mariah Hopkins, ranks second on the Catamount squad with a stroke average of 76.77 through 22 rounds. The Greensboro, N.C., product twice finished as the squad's top scorer this year.
The Catamount duo of Mitchell and Hopkins have led WCU at the SoCon Championship in each of the last two years, both recording fourth-place finishes -- Mitchell tying for the spot at the 2015 event with a score of 216 (72-74-70) and Hopkins coming home tied for fourth as a sophomore in 2014 at 231 (82-73-76) at the Moss Creek Golf Club in Hilton Head Island, S.C.
"I'm excited to have another chance to coach my two seniors. They have meant so much to our program, and I would love nothing more than to see them go out on top," Hetzel said.
On perhaps the hottest streak of the Western Carolina scoring five is true freshman Maddi Caldwell. The Dawsonville, Ga., native has led the Catamount scoring five in back-to-back tournaments entering the conference championship, and claimed her first individual medalist honors at The Cliffs Tri-Match while playing unattached as an individual.
On the season, Caldwell is averaging 77.20 strokes per round, third on the WCU roster and 22nd in the SoCon. Over her last seven rounds, though, Caldwell is averaging 74.14 strokes, carding a career-low round three-times in the last three events, most recently with a 3-under par, 69, at the Rebel Intercollegiate.
Two juniors round out the WCU scoring five for the SoCon Championship as both third-year strikers Bethany Galloway and Ashley Thompson will compete for the Purple and Gold. Thompson is making her third appearance at the crowning event while Galloway returns for just the second time looking to build upon her 21st-place finish a season ago.
Galloway averaged 78.28 strokes per round this season, pacing WCU at the Pinehurst Challenge back in the fall. She tallied her best career finish with an eighth-place showing at The Cliffs Tri-Match back in late March. Thompson has a scoring average of 80.42 this season, but has averaged 77.67 over her last six rounds of the regular season.
Western Carolina won its first-ever SoCon title in 2003, dethroning nine-time defending champion, Furman, by six strokes in an event hosted at the Waynesville Inn, Golf Resort & Spa. Three players - Brandy Andersen, Line Cordes and Rebecca Twiner - earned all-conference plaudits after the ground-breaking championship for the WCU squad, which was inducted into the WCU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014.
After a runner-up finish in 2006, WCU claimed its second conference championship in a rain-shortened, 36-hole event held at Patriot's Point in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., in 2007. The Catamounts rallied from down five strokes after the opening round to edge Furman and former league foe, College of Charleston by four strokes.
All told, the Paladins have produced a league-best 14 individual medalists, while Chattanooga has four and Appalachian State, College of Charleston, Western Carolina and UNCG own one each.
The tournament tees off at 8:00 am on Sunday, April 10. Live stats can be found at GolfStatResults.com.