STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Nicole Vandermade walked off the plane in Austin, Texas, and expected to see nothing but tumbleweeds and cowboy hats. The Canadian had never been to Texas, and though she did see her share of dinner plates and steel-toe boots, she was surprised by all the lakes and hills and people who weren’t entirely countrified.
On top of that, she liked what Martha Richards, the newly-appointed head coach at Texas, had to say.
“I kind of bought into the idea of building a program,” said Vandermade, Richards’ first recruit at Texas. Or rebuilding, in this case.
Fast forward five years to State College, Pa., where Vandermade hopes to lead the 11th-seeded Longhorns to an NCAA Championship. They’re tied for for fourth after an opening 8-over 296.
Richards has made a habit of sneaking into the championship with teams seeded outside the top eight. She has done it in three out of her first four years at Texas, most notably in 2009 with a 17th-seeded team.
“I love it when somebody tells me I can’t do something,” Richards said. “Oh, yeah; watch this.”
Vandermade must carry the bulk of the pressure this week with Madison Pressel out of the lineup. The younger sister of LPGA star Morgan Pressel injured her right shoulder, which has kept her out of the postseason. Pressel won last year’s Big 12 Conference Championship but was unable to play this season. Richards said Pressel has become the team’s head baker, ruining all diets with a delicious banana bread.
All kidding aside, though, Richards knows things could’ve been far different with a healthy Pressel and a present Rebecca Lee-Bentham. Richards lost the latter player to the LPGA this year.
“If we had those two, I’d feel like we’d be right on track,” Richards said.
Richards came to Texas in 2007 after building a successful program at Vanderbilt. Given the state of the Longhorns’ program (Texas hadn’t been to the NCAA Championship since 2004 and finished 10th at the Big 12), Richards figured it would take a minimum of five years to build the former powerhouse back into a top-10 contender. With Lee-Bentham turning professional and Pressel on the bench, she’s now thinking more like seven years.
Vandermade did her part for the program, showing maturity through a more consistent game. The 5-foot-11-inch senior from Brantford, Ontario, pounds the ball some 270 yards off the tee but learned that much length isn’t always necessary. She fought Richards on the use of a 3-wood off the tee during the first couple of years. Now, a more controlled Vandermade boasts a lower scoring average (74.13) and six top-15 finishes. She won the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational with a closing 69.
In a perfect world, Vandermade would lead her team to a top-eight finish this week and head back to Austin to graduate with a degree in kinesiology on May 18. She has exempt status on the Symetra Tour and plans to turn professional this summer. But, she’d like nothing more than to cap off her four years in Franklin, Tenn., site of this year’s NCAA Championship.
“Coach says we’re the scariest 11th seed,” Vandermade said.
There’s history to back up that statement.