Senior duo sets tone for Longhorns' NCAA Women's Golf chances
AUSTIN, Texas -- On the eve of the NCAA Central Regional Championships Wednesday night, the two Longhorn senior golfers will gather with their teammates and coaches for a pre-tournament spaghetti dinner at head coach Martha Richards' home. Their paths to the NCAA Regional where Texas hopes to be among the top eight finishers and advance to the NCAA Championships, however, could not be any more different.
Both Julia Best and Ashley Rollins are playing integral roles in UT's 2007-08 successes, helping first-year head coach Richards' squad to the No. 10 seed at the 21-team NCAA Central Regional Championship.
The Regionals run Thursday through Saturday (May 8-10) and will give The University and the Longhorn program a chance to showcase UT's home course -- the UT Golf Club, a challenging par-72, 6,301-yard course tucked into the northwest Austin hills with state-of-the-art golf amenities. A top eight finish by Texas will send the Longhorns to the NCAA national championship competition in Albuquerque, N.M., from May 20-23.
"It's really rewarding to be hosting the Regionals, but we are not relaxing at all because we are home," noted Best, who hails from Bulverde, Texas and Smithson Valley HS. "I haven't seen anything from our team but confidence. Coach Richards always talks to us about not focusing on the finish, but just focusing on playing the best you can, stroke by stroke, hole by hole. That takes the focus off worrying about the finish and feeling a lot of pressure."
"There is absolutely nothing negative about playing at home, and we cannot wait to get started," said Rollins, an Austin native and as local standout at Westwood HS. "It is impressive to be hosting this Regionals for the first time at our UT Golf Club. At Texas, there's a mindset across campus to always be the best. UT hosts a lot of prestigious NCAA events, which shows that people have total confidence in UT to do things at the highest levels."
Although the paths Best and Rollins have taken to the 2008 NCAAs could not be different, they do share three common threads -- both have gained All-Big 12 playing honors and Academic All-Big 12 First Team plaudits, and both had the distinct possibility one year ago that neither would be sporting the UT burnt orange and white today.
"Having Julia and Ashley on the course this year was a huge shot in the arm for our program," noted Richards, who came to UT after a seven-year stint as Vanderbilt University head coach where she built the Commodore program into a national championship contender. "What's most special is how well they've performed and how well they have led us, especially since both of them were unsure that they'd ever play college golf again before this fall."
"These two individuals made our team better even before we teed off for the first time this fall. Julia is a proven player who went to the NCAAs a few years ago as an individual and has fought off a tough wrist injury to return as a fifth-year senior. Having Ashley on campus was a wonderful opportunity for our program, and a wonderful opportunity for her to return to the game she truly loves. Both of them have a great chance to end their college careers on a high note."
Best is a fifth-year senior who has battled back from a severe wrist injury and subsequent season-ending surgery last year. That injury forced Julia to the sidelines after just one match in the fall of 2006 -- her "true" senior season. The elementary education major was granted a NCAA medical hardship waiver which gave her one more year of eligibility.
After long hours of rehabilitation, the 5-4 redshirt senior worked back into playing form. To date, Best has played in all 11 UT events and has the fourth-best stroke average on the Longhorns squad (77.68).
Rollins was a surprise player for UT this year. She was a high school golf phenom who turned in two stellar college seasons at the University of New Mexico, gaining All-Mountain West Conference accolades as a freshman and sophomore. With changes in the UNM golf program, she then left New Mexico in the fall of 2006, disenchanted with the college game. Coming home to Austin, the corporate communications major enrolled at UT and played golf as an individual.
When Richards arrived on campus as the new Longhorns coach last summer, one of the first people she sought out was the wiry 5-6 Rollins.
Rollins, a National Golf Coaches Association Scholar-Athlete, felt her interest in collegiate golf rekindled after conversations with Richards. And, after qualifying for the 2007 U.S. Women's Open over the summer and playing in the first two rounds of the elite Open, Ashley knew that she had lots left to give to college athletics.
True to her potential, Ashley was UT's top finisher in all eight regular season tourneys this year and has a team-high four top-10 finishes. She holds a team-low 74.6 stroke average and twice has registered rounds of 70. She was named First Team All-Big 12 a few weeks ago.
"After not competing at the NCAAs for one and one-half years, I am really looking forward to this week," Rollins noted. "It was absolutely worth getting back into college golf this year. I never realized how much I would miss the camaraderie, the support of coaches and an athletic staff, and how much wonderful travel we get to take to the best golf courses in the country. There are endless benefits to playing and being a student-athlete, especially at a school like UT."
Now, with their last semester of final exams behind them, the Longhorn duo turn their full attention to the task at hand -- finishing in the top eight at the NCAA Regionals and moving onward to the NCAA championships.
"I am so happy to have come back to play as a fifth-year senior", said Best, who competed at her first NCAA national competition as an individual in 2006 after tying for 13th at the Regionals. "We've put in a lot of hard work, and it's been so rewarding. We have a good mindset heading into the NCAA Regionals. From the start, we all trusted our two new coaches and it's all paying off. I couldn't have wished for a better situation than we have right now. It's my goal to help us get back to the NCAA nationals."
"Hey, the wind blows, the greens get tricky and hard, and this is a tough golf course," Best noted. "We all know that. We've played here in all weather conditions, and all of us have had good days out here."
Rollins agreed with Best's assessments.
"The course is tough and in great shape, the weather is supposed to be hot and humid, and the greens will get really fast. I think we have a slight advantage, because we do know the course quirks and can play in the heat, but you never rest easy or get comfortable when you play golf," Rollins said. "We will walk out there tomorrow, Friday and Saturday with the intent on winning. Your mindset is to play the best you can, worry about nothing else, and if you do, the rest will fall into place."