__FRANKLIN, TENN.--__What a difference a year makes.
At the 2011 NCAA Women's Championship, Alabama arrived as a favorite to claim the team title only to be out of the hunt after just 36 holes, the Crimson Tide shooting a 28-over 604 to put them 20 strokes back of the lead after two rounds.
Twelve months later,Mic Potter's group had similarly high expectations entering this year's national championship, yet have found Vanderbilt Legends Club more to its liking. After opening with a two-under 286, the second-ranked team in the Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll posted a second-round three-under 285 to claim a 11-stroke lead on UCLA, North Carolina and Virginia.
Potter, an NGCA Hall of Fame coach in his seventh year at Alabama after a 20-plus year tenure at Furman, said the experience of playing for a national title is something that's difficult to simulate during the year. Thus, even though his team has won three team titles in 2011-12 and finished inside the top five in every event since the season opener, trying to capture the ultimate prize creates a new level of anxiety.
"I think you have to learn by being there to handle expectations," Potter said. "And going into last year as one of the favorites, I hate to admit it but for an Alabama program that had never been there, it's something you have to go through. … It's hard to handle it if you've never done it. So we may have needed that. All you can do is just learn from it and get back there and try again."
Leading the way this week in Tennessee is senior Brooke Pancake, a native of Chattanooga whose second-round 70 lifted her into the 36-hole individual lead at six-under 138, two strokes better than Arizona State's__Giulia Molinaro__ and three ahead of South Carolina's Katie Burnett, Virginia's__Portland Rosen__ and N.C. State's Brittany Marchand.
A semifinalist at last year's U.S. Women's Amateur and a member of the U.S. Curtis Cup team that will be competing next month in Scotland, Pancake isn't a surprise pick to be atop the leader board. That said, she's recently been battling a balky putter, one that caused her to close last month's SEC Championship with a 80-79 finish, then post a surprising T-35 showing at the NCAA East Regional.
"It's something I've really been working on lately," Pancake said. "When I get comfortable over my putts, it doesn't matter how well I'm hitting it or not, I have that confidence I can get up and down. Or if I have a bad hole, I'm like, 'OK, there are more birdies out there.' So that's what I've been kind of trying to stick to for the last two days and hopefully the next two days because this is a long tournament."
Pancake says the attitude of the team is solid at the mid-way point of the tournament, teammates Stephanie Meadow,Jennifer Kirby,Hannah Collier and Courtney McKim all focused on the task at hand.
"We've lived and learned a bit," Pancake said. "We're just trying to peak at the right time. And now we're just kind of at ease and trying to be really comfortable and say, 'You know we've worked really hard to this point and hard work pays off.' "
Suffice it to say, UCLA knows all about hard work paying off, the Bruins having claimed the 2011 NCAA title and entered this week's championship as the top-ranked school in the country. When the Bruins wrapped up a two-over 290 second-round score, coach Carrie Forsyth lamented about her squad's difficulties making many putts on the North course's new mini-verda Bermuda greens. But when the afternoon wave of schools couldn't make much of a dent on the fast and firm North course, UCLA saw itself dashed up the leader board.
"I think we've just made a few little mistakes each of the last two days," said Forsyth, who saw senior Brianna Do lead the way for her squad with a one-under 71. "We just have to tighten it up."
While the North Course is playing tough, there were sub-par scores to be had as demonstrated by South Carolina's Burnett. The senior shot a 67 Wednesday to set the Gamecocks 18-hole NCAA Championship scoring mark while also helping the team post the day's low round, a seven-under 281 that vaulted them from T-18 to second place.
"We went out with the same game plan that we did every day," said South Carolina coach Kalen Anderson. "We got off to a good start, had some momentum and had some putts go in. They just had some things go there way. And you know once they start getting hot, they tend to kind of just keep it going. It was fun."