College golf is just a few short weeks away. To get you ready, Asher Wildman is breaking down the top 60 men’s and women’s teams from last year’s Golfweek/Sagarin rankings. Today, it’s No. 10 on the board with the Georgia men and Tennessee women.
2010-11 final ranking: 10
Coach: Chris Haack (16th year)
Top returnees: Bryden Macpherson, T.J. Mitchell
Top newcomers: Sophomore Mookie DeMoss (transfer from Mercer), freshman Nicholas Reach of Moscow, Penn., freshman Sam Straka of Valdosta, Ga., freshman Sepp Straka of Valdosta, Ga.
Projected starting 5: Bryden Macpherson (Jr.), T.J. Mitchell (Jr.), Keith Mitchell (So.), Michael Cromie (So.), Nicholas Reach (Fr.)
Key losses: Russell Henley, Hudson Swafford, Harris English
Key fall tournament: The Brickyard
2010-11 recap: Georgia entered the season as a favorite to win the NCAA Championship, but didn’t play that way during the regular season. Even with experienced seniors Russell Henley, Hudson Swafford and Harris English, the Bulldogs were extremely inconsistent and won only once the entire season (The Brickyard Collegiate). “Very average throughout the year,” Haack said. “Finally in the spring, though, we played to our potential.”
After finishing fourth at NCAA regionals, Georgia finally fulfilled those preseason expectations, going on a run to the match-play finals at the NCAA Championship before falling to Augusta State, 3-2. “I knew I had a team that could win it all, and it didn’t surprise me that we almost won it,” Haack said.
Player to watch: Keith Mitchell. Said Haack: “Good player who is just starting to realize he can play. He finished third at the Southeastern Amateur, and he is just a guy who if he finally plays to his potential can be a big boost in the arm for us.”
2011-12 preview: This will be the first time since 1998 that Haack has not had an All-American returning to his team. The talented trio of Henley, English and Swafford has graduated, and it’s time for the ’Dawgs to reload. “I think this is more of a transition year than a rebuilding one,” Haack said. “We just don’t have those identified superstars, but now they have a chance after being overshadowed by my former ‘Big Three.’ ”
One new emerging Bulldogs star could be junior Bryden Macpherson, who won the British Amateur Championship this summer. “I’m hoping he finally has that big year,” Haack said. “He seems to be getting more and more comfortable with college golf, and I’m hoping his potential breaks out this year.” Last season, Macpherson played out of the team’s No. 5 spot and finished at No. 229 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
Incoming recruit Nicholas Reach also may play a key role in Georgia’s success. The AJGA All-American almost won the Palmetto Amateur this summer before losing in a playoff. Haack is excited to see what he can do at the collegiate level. “The kid’s a workhorse, and I expect big things out of him,” Haack said. “I would hope he will be a steady contributor for us.”
Bottom line: Haack realizes this year will be filled with youth and inexperience, but at the same time he thinks it will be fun to watch his young players develop. Georgia nearly won the NCAA Championship last year; this year, just getting there would be an accomplishment. Haack has a young foundation, but the star power just isn’t there. It will take a year or two for the Bulldogs to be back as a national contender.
2010-11 final ranking: 10
Coach: Judi Pavon (11th year)
Top returnees: Erica Popson, Nathalie Mansson
Top newcomers: Freshman AJ Newell of Tampa, Fla.
Projected starting 5: Erica Popson (Jr.), Nathalie Mansson (Sr.), Sara Monberg (Jr.), Kaitlyn Rohrback (So.), AJ Newell (Fr.) or Chessey Thomas (So.)
Key losses: None
Key fall tournament: SEC/Pac-12 Challenge
2010-11 recap: Every year, it seems that Tennessee lacks consistency. The Lady Volunteers often would follow a great finish with a poor one, but then would bounce back and play well again. Part of that may have been the team’s frequent lineup changes. “Once I got our roster settled down, we played well,” coach Judi Pavon said. “We had tough qualifiers, which was fair, and overall a good team.”
Led by individual medalist Erica Popson, the Lady Vols finished second at the NCAA West Regional. At nationals, the team’s inconsistency returned at the worst possible time. Tennessee struggled early and was in 10th place after the opening round, then wound up finishing a disappointing 13th.
Player to watch: Erica Popson. Said Pavon: “She was the talk of college golf towards the end of spring. She’s going to come out and be determined and play at the level where she left off to end the year.”
2011-12 preview: On paper, this is a great team – one that Pavon describes as the best team she has ever had at Tennessee. “Anyone on this team can shoot low,” Pavon said. “This is a team that will be competing for SECs and nationals. We can’t let this season get away from us with the amount of talent we have.”
Leading the charge for Tennessee will be Player of the Year candidate Erica Popson, who finished last season at No. 4 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. She’s the type of player and talent a national contender needs. The Lady Vols also are strong in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots with senior Nathalie Mansson and junior Sara Monberg, respectively. “Natalie’s game is physically terrific, but we need her to be more relaxed on the course,” Pavon said. “Sarah has improved nearly two shots a round, and expect another jump from her this year.”
With such a solid top three, Tennessee’s only real task is to settle on two players it can rely on at the back of the starting five. Pavon has the talent and depth from which to choose, but she needs at least one player to step up and take control of the No. 4 position. To be a national contender, you need four scores to rely on, and right now the Vols only have three.
Bottom line: Tennessee’s problem the last few years hasn’t been a lack of talent. It’s that they can’t put together a string of solid performances in a row. Pavon says she will do whatever it takes to get this team to play at a more consistent level. If Tennessee finds that fourth consistent scorer, the Lady Vols could vault into national-title contention and be a top-5 team.