By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In late October, many of the nation’s top women’s golf teams gathered in Wilmington, N.C., for the Fall Preview.
UVa found the Country Club of Landfall to its liking that weekend, finishing fifth in the 16-team field. So the Cavaliers have a well-earned sense of confidence as they head into the NCAA championships, which start Tuesday at Landfall.
“We’ve played on the course and played well on the course,” third-year coach Kim Lewellen said.
A year ago, Lewellen’s team placed eighth at the NCAA championships, the best finish in the short history of the women’s program at Virginia. A second straight top-10 finish is no certainty, but it seems a more realistic goal now than it did early in the season.
“With the winter we had in Virginia, and the weather that we had had — which a lot of the teams had had — we started out of the gate in the spring a little bit rough,” Lewellen said. “But we progressively got better and better and better and better.”
UVa qualified for the NCAA championships with a fifth-place finish at the NCAA West Regional in Stanford, Calif. Junior Calle Nielson tied for medalist honors with a 54-hole total of 214.
Is Nielson capable of contending for the NCAA title?
“Very much so,” Lewellen said. “Calle is an outstanding competitor. When she needs to do something, she does it and can get it done. She can turn it up a notch. She knows how to win. She’s won two out of the last three events we played in and come in second in the other one.
“Right now she’s at the top of her game, so I think that she would definitely be considered one that could win it, and so could Brittany Altomare.”
Altomare, a freshman from Shrewsbury, Mass., placed second at the Fall Preview in October. At the NCAA West Regional last weekend, she shot 221, the second-best score among UVa’s golfers.
Virginia’s lineup at the four-round NCAA championships consists of Nielson, Altomare, Nicole Agnello, Joy Kim and Lauren Greenlief. Kim, like Nielson, is a junior. The others are freshmen.
“I’d be curious to know if any of the other teams going to the NCAAs are younger,” Lewellen said. “Tulane may be close, but that’s going to be exciting and interesting.”
Nielson, Altomare, Agnello, Kim and Greenlief were UVa’s representatives at the West Regional, and Lewellen saw no reason to shake up her lineup.
“It worked well, they jelled well,” Lewellen said. “But I’m fortunate. I have a lot of depth on this team, so there are a lot of players that could be put in the lineup. These five, in my opinion, at this time are playing the best. But I have others here that could play and play very well for us.”
At Stanford, the Cavaliers’ inexperience was evident at times.
“I had one in particular, Nicole Agnello, who you could tell the whole time she wanted to go to NCAAs and she felt the pressure of the regional qualifier,” Lewellen said. “It was exciting for her and nerve-wracking for her. She played well, and we ended up making it. Now it’s a different mindset.”
At a regional, the main goal of each team is to qualify for the NCAA championships. The top eight teams advance, so “we’re playing a little bit conservative, making sure that we’re saving shots,” Lewellen said. “So something that we usually might do differently, like go attack at certain pins, we’re just playing for the middle of the greens and two-putting and trying to save strokes.”
At the NCAAs, the approach is similar in the early rounds. Teams don’t want to shoot themselves out of contention, so they tend to play it safe at first, Lewellen said, then take more chances in the final two rounds.
Virginia, ranked No. 11 nationally by Golfstat, will play with Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt in the first two rounds. The pairings for the final two rounds will be determined at the tournament’s midpoint.
Lewellen grew up in Raleigh, attended the University of North Carolina and coached at East Carolina. so she was delighted to learn that the NCAAs would be held in Wilmington this year.
“It’s nice for me, because it feels like home,” she said. “I actually lived at Holden Beach for a little while, which is right around the corner.”
Virginia fielded its first women’s golf team in 2003. The Cavaliers’ coach then was Jan Mann, whom Lewellen has long known and respected.
When Mann announced that she would retire after the 2007 season — she has since resumed coaching and now runs the program at UNC — Lewellen found the prospect of succeeding her at UVa appealing.
“You can come into something a little bit easier, because she’s done such a good job with the organization of it,” Lewellen said. “And then with the University of Virginia and the reputation it has academically and athletically, it’s just been a good ride. Recruiting has gone very, very well.”
The only seniors on UVa’s roster this season are Whitney Neuhauser and Carly Truitt, and two recruits will join the program in 2009-10.
“It’ll be interesting next year,” Lewellen said with a smile. “I think I have depth now. Goodness, next year I’m going to even have more depth.”