Taylor Totland ’17 wished for a few things last May as she walked The Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla., but there was nothing she wanted more than to not be the only player at the NCAA Division I women’s championships wearing Furman purple.
This year, she won’t be.
Coach Kelley Hester’s four-year rebuilding project was completed in triumphant fashion May 7 in Texas when the Paladins finished fourth at the Bryan regional to secure a bid to the 24-team national competition. When Furman tees off beginning May 20 at Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Ore., it will mark the 24th time the program has competed in college golf’s biggest tournament—but first since 2008.
Totland is more than happy to share the glory.
“Oh, I am excited my teammates will be there,” the Tinton Falls, N.J., native said. “You have no idea.”
The Paladins’ season ended last spring with a 10th-place finish at the Raleigh regional, but Totland earned the right to advance to the NCAA championships by coming in fifth overall. Playing as an individual qualifier was a lonely, albeit educational, experience for the 2015 Southern Conference Player of the Year, who missed the cut when she shot rounds of 83, 83, and 75 for a 25-over par total of 241, tied for 96th out of 132 players.
“I didn’t play nearly as well as I would have liked to, but I took away a lot from it so I’m looking forward to going back this year as a team,” Totland said. “I would definitely tell my teammates to enjoy every moment of the national championship. When I went last year I was overwhelmed and wish I got to enjoy more of the experience.”
Furman lost one senior off that squad, and despite having only one senior again—Valentina Romero—the Paladins are considerably more battle-tested and simply better this season, as evidenced by their impressive performance in Texas. Furman was third after the first round against a field that included five other top-25 teams and never fell below fourth over three days, showing that the balance fueled by the rise of 2016 SoCon Co-Player of the Year Alice Chen ’18 and the tremendous performance of Haylee Harford ’19, the 2016 SoCon Freshman of the Year, has pushed the team to a new level.
Totland was far and away the team’s best scorer a year ago, setting a school record with a 72.45 stroke average, but this time around she (73.5), Harford (73.5) and Chen (73.0) are all within half a shot of each other to give the Paladins what amounts to essentially three No. 1 players. Chen, who came in second in the SoCon Tournament after a five-hole playoff, was Furman’s top performer in the regional when she tied for sixth at 3-under, four shots back of the lead, while Totland tied for 24th at 3-over and Harford tied for 27th at 4-over.
Jacqueline Bendrick ’18 tied for 32nd at 6-over, and Romero tied for 71st at 16-over.
Chen admits she was nervous during postseason play as a freshman in 2015, but not as a sophomore.
“I felt last year as if we didn’t belong almost. It was nerve-wracking. It was like, ‘Ahh! This is our first time here!’” she said with a laugh. “Just having the experience of last year and knowing what to expect and how to prepare for it in terms of a practice standpoint the week before was very helpful.”
No. 6 Georgia (minus-6) won the regional by six shots over No. 11 Arizona, with No. 3 UCLA a stroke back in third and Furman eight shots behind.
Miami and Texas also qualified.
“Our motto this last week was we were the little engine that could because we were paired with Arizona and Georgia, and they had some pretty strong athletes that could pound it out there pretty far,” Hester said.
Furman captured the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) golf national championship in 1976, which remains the University’s only national title won against all Division I schools, behind the play Cindy Ferro ’76, Betsy King ’77, Beth Daniel ’78, Sherri Turner ’79, and the program also finished third in 1977. All four of those players went on to compete on the LPGA Tour, as did Denise Baldwin-Killeen ’84, Sara Anne (Timms) McGetrick ’85, Dottie Pepper ’87, and Maggie Will ’87, who fueled Furman to another third-place national showing in 1984 and a national runner-up trophy in 1987 after the NCAA took over women’s collegiate championship events in 1982.
But the big money big schools have been throwing at athletics over the past three decades has changed the landscape and made it more and more of a rarity for programs like Furman to stand on equal ground with major Division I teams at the national level. In fact, it’s difficult to overstate how simultaneously impressive and unlikely it is for Hester’s Paladins to still be playing at this point in the season, as a look at the final 24 schools standing will attest.
The list of qualifiers is overwhelming dominated by major conference state universities, with six each coming from the SEC (third-ranked Alabama, No. 4 Georgia, No. 5 Florida, No. 12 Arkansas, No. 17 South Carolina, No. 23 Tennessee) and the Pac 12 (No. 1 Southern California, No. 2 UCLA, No. 7 Stanford, No. 10 Arizona, No. 13 Washington, No. 21 Oregon) and five coming from the ACC (No. 6 Duke, No. 14 Virginia, No. 24 Florida State, No. 35 Miami, No. 37 North Carolina).
Throw in three from the Big Ten (No. 8 Northwestern, No. 27 Ohio State, No. 49 Michigan) and two from the Big 12 (No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 28 Texas) and a full 91.7 percent of the field—22 out of 24 teams—hail from a Power Five conference.
The only outliers? No. 30 Brigham Young from the West Coast Conference and No. 18 Furman from the Southern.
Counting Furman, there are just seven private institutions, and Furman (2,700) is the only one with fewer than 14,000 students as 83 percent of the schools— 20 out of 24—have an enrollment of more than 20,000. Hester played in the NCAA Championships while on the team at Georgia and led both Georgia and Arkansas to the tournament as coach, but this accomplishment means as much to her as any.
“I think it’s almost a stretch to call Furman a mid-major. We’re a small major,” Hester said. “To get to where we have given the resources we have is really rewarding … I think that early in my career I would take it for granted when I got a team to the NCAA final, but it’s hard. Even great teams don’t always make it.”
After years of determining a national championship from the aggregate scores of four rounds of stroke play, the NCAA went to a stroke-play and match-play format for the first time last season. Now, after 54 holes, or three rounds, the top 15 teams and top nine individuals not on those teams advance, and after one more round an individual champion is crowned and the eight schools with the lowest total stroke-play scores square off in match play to determine a team winner.
Hester’s main concern is preparing her players for the fast greens and deep rough likely to be found at Eugene CC while keeping them focused at once on the big picture and only the shot right in front of them.
“I think we just try to remind them that it’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint, so if you don’t get off to a great start that’s OK, there’s a lot of golf. And if you get off to a great start, don’t slack off because it’s going to require really good golf for us to reach our goals,” she said. “You’re not going to overpower a national championship golf course. You’ve got to sort of dissect it and play it one hole at a time, and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
Totland came to Furman because of the program’s reputation and her belief in Hester and assistant coach Jeff Hull, and they haven’t disappointed.
“Jeff and Kelley, they’re the best coaches in the country, hands down,” Totland said. “I knew that they were going to lead the program in the right direction, so it’s exciting to see that’s where we are.”
Hester knows Furman won’t be a favorite in Oregon. She also knows the Paladins have the ability to continue to surprise.
“I think that if we play the kind of golf that we’re capable of we could make it into that top eight that makes it to the match play. I don’t believe it’s a stretch,” Hester said. “We’ve played with those teams and we can hang, but we’re going to have to go out there and minimize mistakes. But our good golf is good enough.”
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