Lingering questions as women's nationals begin

OWINGS MILLS, Md.--We're just underway here at Caves Valley GC, still early enough into the 28th NCAA Women's Championship where a look at the biggest questions entering this week's play remains in order.

__4. Will 300 be a good 18-hole team score?

__As I wrote yesterday, Caves Valley is setup to play particularly difficult this week, leading a few coaches to say publicly (and a lot more privately) that indeed single-round scores starting with a "3" will be rather prevalent.

"You've got to keep your ball in the short grass," said Duke women's coach Dan Brooks.

That said, a course can be challenging yet play fair at the same time, which is the case at Caves. "If you hit it in the rough, you're likely just going to have to play the ball back out into the fairway, but you can still save par if you hang on [during the hole]," says Denver coach Sammie Chergo.

If there's anything going in the players favor, it's the fact that the weather forecast calls for temperatures to be pretty reasonable (high in the mid-70s, low humidity) with no significant rain on the horizon.

__3. Who wants to be the national player of the year?

__A couple weeks back I tried handicapping the race for POY. Suffice it to say, not much has changed since then, with the exception of Auburn's Candace Schepperle failing to reach nationals and likely dropping herself from contention.

If USC's Lizette Salas or Purdue's Maria Hernandez were to win the individual title here come Friday, they'd wrap up POY as well. The same is likely the case with Oklahoma State's Caroline Hedwall. What becomes more interesting, however, is what happens if UC Irvine's Jane Chin or Arizona State's Carlota Ciganda were to claim medalist honors this week. Would that be enough to also earn the top-player honors?

Chin made it nine top-10 finishes in nine starts when she finished T-3 at the West Regional. A soft schedule could still hurt her chances, but after coming in just two strokes back at ASU's Karsten Course, a victory at nationals should be enough to offset any issues of having dominated weak fields.

Ciganda poses a different dilemma, considering that she only enrolled in January and thus has played just a half of a season. In that half--seven starts to be exact--she has won twice and recorded  five top-five finishes. If she were to claim the NCAA title on top of wins at the Pac-10 and West Regional, my guess is she have accomplished enough to earn the award--if not merely get people curious about just how well she might have done if she also played in the fall.

__2. How will Duke standouts Amanda Blumenherst and Jennie Lee close out their college careers?

__For the first time in more than a decade, the Blue Devils actually enter the NCAA Championship without having packed the "favorite" label in their carry-on luggage. Yet if Duke might come into the event with only modest hopes for the team title, seniors Blumenherst and Lee still have grand ambitions for their college finales. Both are talented enough to actually win the championship outright, Lee having finished second, seventh and T-15 in her first three appearances, Blumenherst going T-9, fourth and T-5 in her three.

Bottom line: Don't sleep on either of these Blue Devils as they're both very much capable of leaving Caves Valley clutching the medalist's trophy.

__1. What schools, if any, can challenge Arizona State and UCLA for the team title?

__Having already stuck my neck out to say that championship would likely become a two-team tournament, here's where I can try to kiss and make up. (HA!)

Seriously, though, there are up to four teams that can stay within shouting distance of the Terrific Two, at least through two rounds, maybe three if they're lucky.

USC, Purdue, Oklahoma State and Denver.

The Trojans amazingly have a better team scoring average in 2008-09 than when they won the NCAA title a year ago, yet have not yet won a tournament this season. If Salas, junior Belen Mozo and freshman Jennifer Song get off to a fast start, USC could hang around; the school has been the first-round leader four of the past five seasons.

The Boilermakers have won five times this season, and did beat the Sun Devils in March at the Betsy Rawls Longhorn tournament. The squad relies greatly on three-time Big Ten player of the year Hernandez to help get them rolling, although interestingly Hernandez has struggle at nationals in her three previous starts, finishing no better than T-21 in any of them. Something tells me she'll have a better finish in her final college event.

The Cowgirls have played with just five golfers on their roster since December while simultaneously breaking in a new coach in Annie Young. They don't need to worry, necessarily, about fielding a full team at nationals anymore, but can stick with make smart decisions to help hiccup

The Pioneers won the East Regional title at Mark Bostick GC at the University of Florida after mounting a final-day coming back to pass Alabama. If not for the seven wins they picked up versus NCAA Women's Championship teams in Gainesville, however, Chergo's squad would have only 10 wins versus teams competing for the NCAA title. They get the benefit of playing with ASU and UCLA the first two rounds, but it could also be a curse should they stumble early.