College Women

Women's preview: SEC

Georgia's Marta Silva Zamora during the opening round of the NCAA Women's Championship.
Georgia's Marta Silva Zamora during the opening round of the NCAA Women's Championship. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Friday, February 10, 2012

Georgia has a keen ability to dig itself out of a hole. Head coach Kelly Hester backs the claim by rattling off round-by-round average from the fall. She starts by listing a first-round average of 301, then drops it to 289 and 290 for the next two rounds.

“We’re certainly capable,” Hester said of a fall season during which Georgia logged three top 10s. “We just have to figure out a way to come out of the gate stronger.”

For the past two years, Georgia mostly made headlines through standout Marta Silva Zamora. The Spaniard won Player of the Years honors as a junior last year, but was conspicuously absent from the tops of leaderboards in the fall. It’s a story of sheer exhaustion for a player that fell from the top of the rankings to the 60th position in four fall starts. After grinding through last year’s postseason as an individual, Silva Zamora played a full summer with the Spanish Golf Federation.

“You could tell she was trying her hardest and I think that’s kind of what happens sometimes when you are maybe a little burned out,” Hester said, referencing a first-round 80 out of Silva Zamora to start the year.

In her fifth season with the Bulldogs, Hester says this is the year Georgia can find team success. Aside from Silva Zamora’s potential, Emilie Burger adds a consistent presence – she led the team in scoring in the fall. Another Spaniard, freshman Rocio Sanchez Lobato, was the low scorer for the team in two outings before injuring her wrist at the SEC/Pac-12 Challenge. She had surgery in the offseason and has fully recovered.

In short, Georgia is the poster team for rebuilding. The program has come a long way since Hester’s first year at the helm, when she had to hold tryouts just to fill the roster. Georgia lost no seniors last year, and the Hester regime is beginning to take hold.

“It’s definitely no fun to struggle, and having missed nationals the last two years I think is definitely not something that our program is OK with,” she said. “At the same time that’s history and we move forward and we build and we do the best that we can.”

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Top of the class: Alabama

Best player in the fall: Erica Popson, Tennessee

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Past champions

2007: Georgia

2008: Florida

2009: Auburn

2010: Alabama

2011: Auburn

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Conference capsules

Alabama (Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking: No. 2)

The team with the best chance of knocking off favored UCLA at the national championship. Finished second to the Bruins at the Preview, then finished second to LSU at the Tar Heel Invitational before winning SEC/Pac-12 Challenge.

Auburn (No. 3)

This resurgent Tiger team compiled one of the more consistent fall seasons in the country, finishing second twice and third twice. Carlie Yadloczky and Marta Sanz each claimed an individual victory. Auburn should not fall short of NCAAs this year.

Vanderbilt (No. 5)

Capable of producing a good home-course fight at the Legends Club for the NCAA Championship -- especially after a second-round misstep at the Fall Preview left the Commodores in ninth. Marina Alex making the most of her senior year with help from junior Lauren Stratton, Golfweek’s No. 4 player and one of the surprise breakout stars of the fall.

LSU (No. 6)

Eratic in the fall -- wins at the Cougar Cup and Tar Heel interspersed with an 11th at the Preview and a 15th at the SEC/Pac-12 Challenge. Reigning NCAA champion Austin Ernst saw similarly streaky results. With its best game, LSU has the potential to top 5 at the NCAAs for a second consecutive year.

Georgia (No. 11)

With what head coach Kelly Hester calls her best team yet at Georgia, look for the rest of the team to join standout Marta Silva Zamora at the national championship. With time to rest over the winter break, Silva Zamora should make more headlines on her own in the spring, too.

Florida (No. 15)

Freshman Camilla Hedberg and junior Mia Piccio led this team to two top 5s. Will need to perform better in stronger fields this spring -- the Gators were 13th at the Preview, eighth at the SEC/Pac-12 Challenge -- but don’t forget Florida’s top 10 at nationals last year. Four players returned from that team.

Tennessee (No. 19)

Now that Erica Popson has had surgery to address a nagging left thumb injury, she should provide a spark for the Lady Vols week in, week out. Will need Nathalie Mansson healthy, too, to avoid a repeat of 17th-place finish at the Fall Preview.

South Carolina (No. 25)

No head-turning performances in the fall as a team, but senior Katie Burnett solid as always -- led the team with two top 10s. A young roster behind her.

Ole Miss (No. 34)

A T-5 at the Golfweek Conference Challenge was the team’s best fall finish. Senior threesome Natalie Gleadall, Ashley Lance and Haley Millsap provide a good base for the Rebels, likely enough to secure them a spot at the national championship.

Kentucky (No. 39)

Kentucky (39): Ashleigh Albrecht is the bright spot on this roster. Helped lead Kentucky to a team win at the Bettie Lou Evans Invitational.

Arkansas (No. 45)

There is more talent on this roster than a No. 45 ranking shows -- opened the season in three of the most difficult fields on the East Coast, but couldn’t crack the top half of the leaderboard in any. Sophomores Emily Tubert and Emma Lavy can play better than they did in the fall, but they need a No. 3 and 4 man to step up, too.

Mississippi State (No. 92)

Almost cracked the top 10 in its final event of the fall, the Betsy Rawls. Freshman Ally McDonald the best player on this squad.

Conference championship

April 20-22, Blessings GC, Fayetteville, Ark.

Lance Ringler's prediction

Alabama. This conference championship is as competitive as it gets. Seven SEC schools currently in the top 20, but right now I am going with Alabama. Simply put, the Tide have the most talent in the league. Five players in the top 100 makes this team very difficult to beat in the long haul.

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Complete coverage

Wondering how your favorite conference is shaping up headed into the spring season? Who is our favorite to pick up the automatic qualifier? Check out our conference-by-conference break down with our complete coverage page here.

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