ATHENS, Ga. -- On the morning of the 2013 NCAA Women's Division I National Championship, the fog is slowly lifting and will give way to warm temperatures in the upper 80s by midday. Today represents the culmination of years of hard work for the teams and individuals that have earned the chance to compete for a national title at University of Georgia GC. Let's take a quick look at a few of the 24 teams competing this week.
It's hard to start with anyone but Alabama -- defending national champs, current SEC and East Regional champs. Led by Stephanie Meadow, who carries an adjusted stroke average of 71.846 and was a sophomore member of last year's national championship team, the Crimson Tide will look to make this year's championship their seventh consecutive title of 2013. Add senior Jennifer Kirby and junior Hannah Collier to the mix, and the defending champ returns with one of the strongest teams in the field.
Back with a vengeance after finishing a shot behind Alabama last year, Southern California closed the regular season with the nation's top ranking and -- led by Annie Park's seven-under 206 and Kyung Kim's final-round 63 -- won the West Regional by a shot over Purdue for the squad's record sixth title of the season. The Trojan's have three players (Park, Kim and Sophia Popov) ranked in the top 14 in scoring average, led by Park's national best 71.846.
Less than two weeks removed from a dramatic Central Regional victory over Oklahoma on the Sooners' home course, the Duke Blue Devils arrive in Athens hoping to claim their first national title since 2007. The Blue Devils have senior leadership in 2012 Curtis Cupper Lindy Duncan, who was key in overcoming a six-shot final-round deficit to win the regional crown. It's tough to count Duke out at any point; they might just be strongest playing from behind. Also, they'll be playing alongside USC and Alabama in the first two rounds, keeping a close eye on their two biggest foes.
While several teams are deserving of mention in this column, it's tough to write a good preview without mentioning UCLA (making its 12th straight NCAA appearance despite a disappointing seventh at the East Regional), Purdue (senior Paula Reto's seven-under 206 was good for medalist honors at the West Regional), Oklahoma (a deep squad highlighted by juniors Anne-Catherine Tanguay, Emily Collins and last year's individual champ, Chirapat Jao-Javanil) and Arkansas (third at regionals is best in school history and coach Shauna Estes-Taylor played for UGA).
MY PICKS: I'm going with Alabama as team champion. Compared to other teams, the women from Tuscaloosa are close to home and in a friendly environment. They live for big events and look more than ready to defend their title after posting a 20-under (!) total at regionals. Stephanie Meadow could very well win the individual title after claiming medalist honors at regionals, but I'm going with USC's Annie Park. That Park shot 68 in the final-round at regionals is about all I need to know.
As far as wildcards go, which sometimes is pretty far, I'm picking Tulane to surprise some people. The team has not finished worse than fourth in any tournament since October, and in finishing second at the East Regional, defeated strong teams like Arkansas, UCLA, Texas and Oklahoma State. Keep your eye on the Green Wave.