In her six seasons at the helm of South Carolina’s women’s golf program, Kalen Harris has developed an enviable trend: her team thrives at national tournament time. And the latest signs point to 2013 being another chapter from the same script.
The Gamecocks head into the NCAA West Regional in Stanford, Calif., on Thursday following their finest performance of the season, a third-place finish in the Southeastern Conference championship.
“That gives us confidence and momentum,” Harris said in looking toward the regional ... and beyond.
There is reason to add the “and beyond.” In four of her five seasons, the Gamecocks have advanced to the NCAA tournament and won a couple of regional titles along the way, and the team is — again — playing its best late in the year.
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Competition in the SEC tournament comes close to equaling what the Gamecocks will face on the national stage. Thirteen of the league’s 14 teams earned berths in the NCAAs. What the coach especially liked is how her team responded to the challenging conditions in the conference championship at Greystone Golf Club in Birmingham, Ala.
“That was a tough, tough golf course,” said Puggy Blackmon, USC’s director of golf.
With sophomore Justine Dreher and freshman Sarah Schmelzel posting top-10 individual finishes, USC climbed from sixth to third in the final round to secure the school’s best finish since winning the 2002 championship.
“The Stanford course is the toughest course of the three regional sites,” Harris said — and she likes that. “We play better on more difficult courses.”
South Carolina, ranked 37th in Golfstat Head-to-Head rankings, is seeded 12th in the 24-team West that includes three other SEC teams. Pac-12 champion Southern California is the top seed.
“We, obviously, have to play our best, and our momentum is positive,” she said. “We have won regionals and done well in the national tournament in the past, but every year is a new year. Last year (East regional title, fifth in NCAAs) doesn’t justify this year, but we have three players who experienced those things last year, and we have good memories.”
Joining Schmelzel and Dreher in the regional lineup will be senior Meredith Swanson, junior Suzie Lee and freshman Mary Fran Hillow. Schmelzel has been the squad’s low individual in four of nine tournaments, and Dreher has been the team medalist three times.
“We played pretty well at Bryan Park (N.C.), and I saw some positive things in Arizona (Ping ASU Invitational) against a good field in our last two (regular-season) tournaments,” Harris said. “Then, everything came together in the SEC. That’s what you want, to be playing your best at the end of the year, and we will need that in the regional.”
History from Harris’ first five seasons suggests that will happen.
The USC men’s team that finished second in the SEC tourney two weeks ago climbed to 22nd in the Golf World/Nike poll selected by college coaches. The Gamecocks and other Division I teams will learn their postseason regional sites on Monday. Nine of the 14 SEC teams are ranked in the top 25. ... Volunteer positions remain for the Web.com Tour’s BMW Charity Classic, set for May 16-19 at three Greenville-area courses. Go to bmwcharitygolf.com for information. ... The road to the U.S. Open begins this week with local qualifying set for Monday at Carolina Country Club in Spartanburg and for Thursday at the Secession Golf Club in Beaufort. ... The Carolinas PGA Section’s Carolinas Open will be played Tuesday-Thursday at Bryan Park near Greensboro.