By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not long after the UVa women’s golf team secured perhaps the biggest victory in the program’s history, junior Portland Rosen, representing the Cavaliers’ upperclassmen, sent out an email to her teammates.
“This is an hour after we’ve won, so you think we’d be celebrating,” Virginia coach Kim Lewellen recalled with a laugh. “And within an hour, they’re saying, `This doesn’t mean we slow down. It means we have a target on our back now, so we’ve got to work harder and prepare for postseason play.’
“These upperclassmen want it bad, and they’re working hard for it, and it’s exciting to see. It makes my job a lot easier.”
When the Cavaliers traveled to Browns Summit, N.C., late last month for the Bryan National Collegiate tournament, they were ranked No. 15 nationally by Golfstat. Other teams in the field include No. 2 Duke, No. 5 Florida, No. 6 Arkansas, No. 7 Vanderbilt, No. 9 North Carolina and No. 19 Georgia.
None finished ahead of Virginia. Led by junior Elizabeth Brightwell, who birdied three of her final four holes, the Wahoos withstood a late charge by Arkansas and won with a 5-over 869.
“That was a huge win,” said Lewellen, whose team rose to No. 12 in the latest Golfstat rankings. “Add four [other elite] teams, maybe five, and that’s the NCAA field. So that was very exciting.”
Brightwell placed fourth in the three-day, 54-hole tournament with an even-par 216. Senior Brittany Altomare, an All-American, finished second at 212. Sophomore Briana Mao was seventh at 219, and Rosen was 23rd at 222.
Altomare, from Shrewsbury, Mass., last week was named the ACC women’s golfer of the month for March. Mao, who’s from Folsom, Calif., earned that honor for February after winning the UCF Challenge in Sorrento, Fla.
At last month’s SunTrust Gator Invitational in Gainesville, Fla., Rosen finished second and Altomare third to help UVa tie for fourth in the team standings. Then came the top-4 finishes that Altomare and Brightwell posted at the Bryan National Collegiate. No wonder Lewellen and her assistant coach, Brian Bailie, are optimistic about the team’s postseason prospects.
“Brian says we have a four-headed monster right now, in a good way,” said Lewellen, who’s in her sixth year at UVa. “We’ve got a strong top four, and then Nicole or whoever might be in that fifth spot.”
Senior Nicole Agnello also competed at the Bryan National Collegiate, shooting 77-77-78-232. UVa, which counted its top four scores each day, did not need to use any of Agnello’s rounds.
Still, Lewellen said, Nicole “had a steady three days. Knowing that you have an upperclassman, a senior out there, that’s going to grind and work hard is great. If we’d needed to count her score, we still would have been competing and in contention for the win.”
Rounding out the roster are freshman Alex Hershberger, redshirt freshman Lauren Coughlin, and sophomores Melissa Edmonson and Kaira Martin. “We’ve got a lot of strong players at home that are waiting to be put in if necessary,” Lewellen said.
The victory was the Cavaliers’ first since September 2010. Among the teams that finished behind UVa in Browns Summit were five of its ACC rivals: Wake Forest, NC State, Duke, UNC and Florida State.
“This is a strong conference, and to perform as well as we did is good for our confidence,” Lewellen said.
In 2011 and again last year, Virginia placed fourth at the NCAA championships. As thrilled as Lewellen was about the win at the Bryan National Collegiate, she doesn’t worry much about her team’s regular-season results.
“I like to give everybody the opportunity to play, and I like to see what people do in competition,” she said. “So, saying that, I think our ranking doesn’t reflect probably how good of a team we are.
“In golf, we’re a spring and fall sport, and so we don’t have what I would call a preseason, a time to cultivate and get better, like a lot of other sports do. So I think we have to use the entire year to strategically do that.
“I always am looking to see who’s going to be playing better at the end of the year, but I use our regular-season tournaments as our preseason, and it may be that Elizabeth Brightwell’s been going through a swing change, and she’s having to play through that swing change, so she may have an off time here or there. Or we may be experimenting with a different putting technique, but we’ve got to play with it during our regular season.
“We definitely use our regular-season tournaments to try things and see what works, and if it doesn’t, we go back to the drawing board to prepare for postseason play. We’re out there still putting the puzzle together.”
The `Hoos don’t compete again until April 19, when the ACC tournament begins in Greensboro, N.C. Then comes an NCAA regional, starting May 9, followed by the NCAA championships, May 21-24 in Athens, Ga.
A year ago, the Cavaliers were ranked No. 27 when they began the NCAA championships. They became the first team in five years to post a top-10 finish after entering the tournament ranked outside the top 25.
Virginia’s 72-hole score of 1175 was nine shots better than its previous best performance at the NCAAs.
Lewellen won’t be surprised if her golfers surge late again this year.
“I think we have a very, very strong team,” she said, “and they’re very strong in their work ethic.”