__WILMINGTON, N.C.—__It should be exciting to watch the third round of the NCAA Women's Championship unfold here Thursday at CC of Landfall. Of course, I'm curious about how USC does with a seven-stroke lead and what kind of fight Pac-10 powers UCLA and Arizona State put up as they begin the day 10 and 11 strokes behind the Trojans, respectively.
The team, however, I'm most interested in watching today is the one that surprisingly is in second place right now. How will upstart Alabama respond to being in the day's final threesomes? The Crimson Tide actually held the lead midway through Wednesday's second round, at one point sitting a seven under on the day before stumbling a bit on the back nine and finishing with an even-par 288 and a one-over 577 total.
Alabama's rise over the past few seasons has been an impressive story that only continued during the 2009-10 campaign when coach Mic Potter's squad won its first SEC title in school history.
There were signs back in September that Alabama was ready to take the next step toward being a national contender. Playing in their first tournament of the season, the NGCA Collegiate Match Play, the Crimson Tide was in 12th place with only a few holes left in stroke-play qualifying, yet managed to close strong and finish in sixth place, putting it in the championship flight.
"I think at that point," said Potter, "my assistant, Susan Rosenstiel, and I kind of said to ourselves that they showed us something there they really hadn't in the last four years."
So began the yearlong transition of a team that merely hoped to succeed at any given event to one that expected success. "I think we've gotten to the point where we're not afraid to win and not afraid to play with anything," Potter said. "I think we feel like we can hold our own with any other team."
Including the Alabama men's squad. Just prior to coming to nationals, the two teams played a bit of a grudge match back near campus. Potter proudly noted that it was the women who walked away with the victory, and a little extra confidence.
With junior Camilla Lennarth, freshman Jennifer Kirby and sophomore Brooke Pancake providing solid performances at the top of the lineup, Alabama posted three top-five finishes this spring prior to the conference championship. Since then, however, it's been the play of the No. 4 and 5 golfers, Helena Blomberg and Rhea Nair, that Potter believes has allowed them to make some noise in the postseason. Blomberg's T-7 showing at the SEC Championship helped key the Crimson Tide's victory. After two rounds at nationals, Nair is the low Alabama player, shooting a two-under 142, five off the individual lead, and resulting in a 3:24 pairing with USC's Jennifer Song and Purdue's Maude-Aimee LeBlanc in the third round.
Give credit to Potter, who took a leap of faith five years ago when he left the Furman program he had coached for more than two decades to come to Tuscaloosa and see what he could do for a program that had gotten to the NCAA Championship only once before he arrived. The NGCA Hall of Fame coach, though, says the ones that made the real gamble are the players who bought into Potter's message over the past few years despite the school having almost no track record.
"Certainly Susan and I worked hard at it," said Potter, "but those girls took a risk, too, and that made a big difference."
Just how far has the Crimson Tide come? We'll know a little more in the next two days.