Unsung Pirates sail to East lead

Women's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Alison LeeUCLA  69.59 
2Annie ParkUSC  69.73 
3Yu LiuDuke  69.81 
4Stephanie MeadowAlabama  70.00 
5Gaby LopezArkansas  70.01 

Women's Team Rankings »

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1Southern California 70.32 
2UCLA 70.60 
3Duke 70.79 
4Stanford 71.49  10 
5Arkansas 71.52 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – East Carolina coach Kevin Williams had a tough time standing still Thursday as his players were coming off the University of Florida’s Mark Bostick Golf Course.

Pacing wouldn’t be the right way to describe it, but the coach had a hop in his step as he moved from the clubhouse to the ninth green where his Pirates were completing what would turn out to be the best round of their season.

“Hey, we’re as good as they are, if not better,” Williams said, still a little out of breath, and standing next to a scoreboard with names like Virginia, Auburn, Duke and Alabama all listed below his East Carolina squad.

It’s tough to blame Williams for his excitement. With a 3-over 283, the 12th-seeded Pirates were the surprise first-round leaders at the NCAA Women’s East Regional. Juniors Abby Bools and Ana Maria Puche shared the individual lead after posting 2-under 68s. The top 8 teams advance to the NCAA Championship.

“We’ve got that belief of knowing, ‘Hey I’m playing with a two-time All-American, but I’m still just as good,’ ” Williams said.

The Pirates’ confidence hasn’t come overnight, however. In fact, for the first time since he can remember, Williams hasn’t had to preach self-esteem to his players on a constant basis this season. The surge in spirit came, strangely enough, from a couple middle-of-the pack finishes this year.

After winning a school-record six times last year and breaking into the national rankings for the first time in program history, East Carolina inked a tougher schedule this season. At events like the Landfall Tradition, Northrup Grumman and Bryan National, the Pirates learned they could compete with some of the nation’s best teams – even if they weren’t beating them.

“Last year, it was kind of easy,” said Puche, a junior from Colombia. “We just played, and we would win. Now we actually have to play well to win.”

The turning point for East Carolina came in early April after they finished fifth at Landfall, ahead of Louisville, Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia. It was a big step for a program still trying to earn respect.

“We use that as motivation,” Williams said. “We’re not a name school. The only way to get in (elite) tournaments is to step up.”

Did they ever on Thursday. On Puche’s third hole of the day, the 490-yard par-5 12th, she holed out for eagle from 100 yards with a 52-degree wedge, then played her final nine holes in 2 under. Bools, the 2008 Conference USA player of the year, birdied Nos. 13-15 with putts from inside 8 feet. Sophomore Amber Littman pitched in a 73 and freshman Amy Otteson posted a 74.

Confidence is high right now for East Carolina, and it’s only going to grow. In their nine years as a program, the Pirates have never been to an NCAA Championship. They host the East Regional next year, and without a senior currently on their squad, 2010 was supposed to be their year to break through. Now, the Big Dance may come a little sooner than expected.

“We’re going to prove tomorrow if we’re good or not,” Puche said. “If we don’t fall tomorrow, we’re going to know we’ve got something.”

• • •

IN THE HUNT: School’s out for the summer, which has been a treat for Vanderbilt freshmen Andrea Messer and Marina Alex. The pair can now just concentrate on golf.

“I counted, in two weeks on the road this spring, I wrote 27 pages for three different classes,” Messer said.

It wasn’t much easier for Alex, who said it took a little while to figure out how to manage her time to make sure her school work and golf game were on point. It’s not that they blame the team’s 10th-place showing at the SEC Championship on stressing about finals, but some extra tension was there.

“It just wears you out,” Alex said.

The Commodores, however, looked spry on Thursday. Vanderbilt shot 6-over 286 and was three shots back of the lead. It was an unfamiliar place for a team that didn’t finish better than 10th during the spring, and dropped 26 spots in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings to No. 38.

“It’s been a while,” coach Greg Allen said. “But we understand how good we are.”

Added Alex: “It’s nice to come here all refreshed and ready to go.”

• • •

HOW’S NO. 1 DOING?: Playing without senior Jennie Arseneault, who did not travel with the team to Gainesville, top-seeded Virginia was seven shots behind East Carolina after a 10-over 290. Whitney Neuhauser, who was 4 over after 10 holes, played her last eight in 3 under to shoot 71 to lead the Cavaliers. Arseneault’s replacement, sophomore Joy Kim, birdied No. 18 to shoot 74.

Wednesday was the first time any Virginia player had stepped foot onto the University of Florida Golf Course.

“I like the position we’re in right now,” coach Kim Lewellen said. “We’re still trying to feel out the course.”

• • •

SURPRISE OF THE DAY: Dating back to the Lady Gator Invitational in early April, an event she won, Duke senior Amanda Blumenherst has gone 45 consecutive holes at the Mark Bostick Golf Course without a birdie. The three-time player of the year made five bogeys and a double bogey Thursday, and her 77 was thrown out for the Blue Devils.

Blumenherst fought a hook all day and had trouble off the tee. She had to punch out to the fairway five times in her round. With her teammates and coaches in the clubhouse eating lunch after the round, Blumenherst headed straight to the driving range.

“Definitely my confidence has been rocked a little bit,” she said. “I’ve been practicing a lot. Hopefully that will kick in soon.”

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