OWINGS MILLS, Md.--"The first question I usually get," says Stephanie Sherlock when people hear that she plays on the women's golf team at the University of Denver, "is are "Are you guys Division I?' "
Yes, the Pioneers, six-time Sun Belt Conference champions, do play D-I golf. And play it well, thank you, as their place atop the leader board after the first round of the 28th NCAA Women's Championship can attest.
Anchored by Sherlock's two-under 70, which gave her a share of the individual lead, Denver posted a six-over 294 on a Caves Valley course that lived up to its brutish reputation, taking the first-round lead by two strokes over UCLA and five over North Carolina.
"Today was a great start," said Denver coach Sammie Chergo. "But I liken it to the Nuggets playing the Lakers. We just played the first quarter. There's a lot of time left in the game."
Perhaps so, but on a day when many people were looking for Pac-10 powers Arizona State and UCLA to go run and hide from the rest of the field, the Pioneers did their best to prove that this championship might be more than a two-team tournament.
Ranked 16th in the final Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll, Denver carried a fair bit of momentum coming into nationals, having put together a final-round come-from-behind victory at the East Regional for their fourth team title of the 2008-09 season. After taking a few days off upon returning to Denver, the team then tried to "get out and play on some of the hardest courses we could find" to be best ready for the challenge that Caves Valley would pose. So it was that Chergo's group paid visits to Castle Pines GC and Colorado GC. "We got out and played some really nice, really challenging golf courses," Chergo said. "I think that helped us prepare."
Sherlock, a junior from Barrie, Ontario, was one over on her round after 12 holes, before making birdies on the 14th, 17th and 18th to post her 70. It was the second lowest score the first-team All-American had posted during an up-and-down spring in which she has spent a lot of time working on her putting stroke, changing from a cross-handed grip to a more conventional one and working on her swing path.
"It's nice to finally have a round like this, where I had a lot of putts fall for me," Sherlock says. "I know I can play like this. I know I can compete at this level."
Sherlock joined North Carolina freshman Catherine O'Donnell, who shot a 70 during the morning wave, as the only two players in the 126-woman field to break par. The average first-round score at Caves Valley was 77.92 despite almost perfect weather conditions.
While Chergo wanted her players to take confidence from the day, she was hesitant for them to get too excited.
"Are we one of the better teams here, sure, but oh my gosh 12 different teams if they get playing well can win this," Chergo said. "And UCLA and Arizona State and UCLA are still by far the best teams. But great, to be right in the mix on the first day is a very good thing."
A 14-over 302 with defending NCAA medalist Azahara Munoz shooting a 78 and no other player shooting better than a 74 wasn't exactly the start Arizona State women's coach Melissa Luellen was looking for out of her top-ranked Sun Devil squad.
"I think we played a little tentative," said Luellen. "We all kind of played ehh on the same day, and that doesn't usually happen for us."
Even so, the Sun Devils finished only eight strokes back of first-round leader Denver, grabbing a share of fifth place after 18 holes. It's a far better scenario than two years ago at LPGA International, when a similarly No. 1 ranked Sun Devils squad opened up with a 19-over 307 and was never able to get back into the tournament.
"On a golf course like this, anything can happen," Luellen said. "We'll be glad to get out there first thing tomorrow and get this [round] out of our system."
Mid-way through Tuesday afternoon, it looked as if defending NCAA champion USC was poised to lead at nationals after the first round for the fifth straight year and the sixth out of the last seven seasons. But a few stumbles down the stretch and some strong play from other schools left the Trojans in fourth place after 18 holes, seven strokes back of Denver after posting a 13-under 301.
Freshman-of-the-year candidate Jennifer Song led the way for the Trojans with a even-par 72 while player-of-the-year candidate Lizette Salas shot a 74.