__BRYAN, TEXAS—__What does it say about women's college golf that the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 champions, and the arguably the most dominant team in the game for nearly 15 years, all failed to qualify for this week's NCAA Women's Championship?
A lot, frankly, and I don't mean this in a bad way.
As has been the case for a while now, the overall depth in the women's game continues to grow, and with that the gap between the haves and have nots is being bridged. With Purdue's victory a year ago, the first time a northern school claimed the national championship, winning an NCAA title is no longer something only a handful of southern schools can truly aspire to.
So maybe it's not a surprise then that Auburn, Michigan State and Texas all came off big wins at their respective conference championships, only to find out that if you're not playing well in any given week, somebody is going to beat you. Or that Duke, a perennial NCAA contender having claimed the title five times since 1999, would also miss out. (OK, so it is still really hard to believe that the Blue Devils missed out.)
What does that mean for the proceedings that begin tomorrow at The Traditions Club? A few things:
*1) There is no clear favorite.
*Just contenders with more pluses than minuses but not without questions.
*2) Experience is still a big deal.
*Yeah, yeah, I just spent the first five paragraphs saying that traditional powers are having to make room for newcomers. But Purdue wasn't an overnight sensation. The Boilermakers played 10 straight years at nationals, working their way into become contenders, before finally winning in 2010. Same for Arizona State as the Sun Devils returned to prominence after a few lean years in the 2000s. While winning in 2009, ASU also had to take its lumps in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Meanwhile, it's not like the standout programs are standing still. Teams such as USC and UCLA have been atop leader boards at NCAAs for more than a decade, which helps breed confidence. When the pressure is highest, having "been there before" can help calm nerves and claim championships.
With all that, here's how I see things shaking out, with basic odds for the majority of the field and more specifics for this year's Fab Five.
70-1 to win the title
Coastal Carolina, Minnesota
UC Davis, South Carolina, Washington
Arizona State, Ohio State, Stanford, Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Florida, Vanderbilt
Virginia, North Carolina, California, Arizona, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas A&M
*__FIVE TO WATCH
__*[#image: /photos/55ad73f4add713143b42548c]|||LSU logo.gif|||
Odds to win:__ 25-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 8
Overall head-to-head record: 132-43-1 (.753)
Record vs. NCAA field: 55-31 (.640)
Starting five: Austin Ernst, Fr.; Jacqueline Hedwall, Jr.; Megan McChrystal, Sr.; Tessa Teachman, Jr.; Amalie Valle, Sr.
__Birdie:__There are good vibes at The Traditions Club for the Tigers, who finished second at the NCAA Preview here last September, losing by one stroke to Alabama. Meanwhile Karen Bahnsen's squad, particularly senior All-American McChrystal, who was medalist here last fall, regained some confidence with its second-place showing at the Central Regional.
__Bogey:__Only McChrystal has a sub-72 stroke average, with the rest of the team more than capable of playing well but often relying too much on their senior standout to determine the team's fate.
Odds to win:__ 20-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 4
Overall head-to-head record: 146-24-4 (.851)
Record vs. NCAA field: 42-16-1 (.720)
Starting five: Laura Gonzalez-Escallon, Soph.; Numa Gulyanamitta, Sr.; Thea Hoffmeister, Sr.; Maude-Aimee LeBlanc, Sr.; Paula Reto, Soph.
Birdie: All five players from last year's NCAA title team are in the lineup, with Gulyanamitta coming off an individual win at the Big Ten and Gonzalez-Escallon posting top-10s at Big Tens and the East Regional
__Bogey:__LeBlanc, Purdue's top player from a year ago, has been in a funk this spring and the team as a whole has struggled of last, getting upset at the conference championship and finishing only sixth at the East Regional.
Odds to win:__ 12-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 2
Overall head-to-head record: 145-14-1 (.909)
Record vs. NCAA field: 58-13-1 (.813)
Starting five: Ani Gulugian, Fr.; Stephanie Kono, Jr.; Lee Lopez, Soph.; Tiffany Lua, Soph.; Glory Yang, Sr.
__Birdie:__Only once all season have the Bruins not finished in the top five, contending on a regular basis while having three players (Kono, Lua, Lopez) in the top 30 in the Golfstat Cup ranking.
__Bogey:Can bottom of the lineup __hang in their this week? Top players are all solid, but none seems to go way low, meaning entire roster needs to step up for the win.
Odds to win:__ 9-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 3
Overall head-to-head record: 166-11-2 (.933)
Record vs. NCAA field: 73-9-1 (.886)
Starting five: Hannah Collier, Fr.; Jennifer Kirby, Soph; Camila Lennarth, Sr.; Stephanie Meadow, Fr.; Brooke Pancake, Jr.
__Birdie:__Shook off disappointment of losing SECs by coming out and playing well en route to victory at the East Regional. Stephanie Meadow is looking like more than just a top freshmen contender but a player-of-the-year candidate.
Bogey: While none of the players were directly effected by the deadly tornadoes that hit Tuscaloosa, the tragedy has taken an emotional toll on all those from the school. Can't be the most ideal way to prepare for a national championship.
__Odds to win: 8-1
Golf World/NGCA ranking: 1
Overall head-to-head record: 148-9-1 (.940)
Record vs. NCAA field: 67-9-1 (.877)
Starting five: Rachel Morris, Fr.; Inah Park, Jr.; Sophia Popov, Fr.; Cyna Rodriguez, Soph.; Lizette Salas, Sr.
Birdie: Despite missing All-American candidate Lisa McCloskey, the Trojans still hung on to win the Pac-10 and West Regional titles. Additionally, the memory of a one-stroke loss to Purdue at nationals a year ago could serve as strong motivation.
Bogey: McCloskey's rib injury will keep her out of the line-up once more, requiring the entire team to step up to fill the void. Salas and Popov are playing well, but will the remaining three handle the pressure?