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SORRENTO, Fla. – The North Carolina camp is not a quiet one, nor should it be after Tuesday’s final round of the UCF Challenge. The Tar Heels’ margin of victory was in the double digits at RedTail Golf Club.
The North Carolina sidelines were peppered with parents, siblings and most notably, former players Catherine O’Donnell and Allie White throughout the week. There was much post-round commotion, and you get the idea North Carolina isn’t a team that takes itself too seriously. Head coach Jan Mann confirms that thought when asked what message she delivered to her girls after they had built a 16-shot lead with one round to play.
“There was not a message,” Mann said. “We do the same thing every time. It’s just focusing on the routine and not worrying about outcome.”
North Carolina’s key this week was strategy. Mann calls RedTail a placement course, and one that calls for self-restraint. By playing smart, her team kept the big numbers away.
The Tar Heels outscored the next-best team by 14 shots during Round 2, which is when they really pulled away from the field. Their scores were comparable during the other two rounds.
“They played a fantastic round yesterday, which obviously separated them a lot,” Tulane head coach Andrew Pratt said.
A young Tulane squad gave the best effort of any chaser on Tuesday, but couldn’t close the gap. The Green Wave’s 2-over 290 team score left them 17 shots behind North Carolina, and with a third top-3 finish on the season. Tulane finished third here a year ago with three seniors in the lineup. This year, Tulane fielded one senior, a sophomore and three freshmen.
“I think that speaks a lot for the freshmen, how they’ve been working really hard,” Pratt said. “They’re doing all the right things, and they’re getting a lot better.”
Tuesday’s final round brought even stronger winds, and North Carolina shot a tournament-high 1-over 289. Mann watched her team go 7 over to start the day before regrouping.
“I was really proud of them, the way they came back,” Mann said.
North Carolina’s recurring dynamic is that there’s no superstar – every player contributes. This week, junior Casey Grice and freshman Elizabeth Mallett were the scorers, tying for third at 2-under 214, two strokes behind winner Briana Mao of Virginia. With two other seasoned juniors (Jackie Chang and Katherine Perry) and a consistent senior leader in Courtney Gunther, North Carolina is not lacking in experience.
They don’t lack in work ethic, either. This winter’s fitness regime had the Tar Heels in the gym five times each week. The work is paying off, as three players (Mallett, Perry and Grice, who was T-5 at 215) finished inside the top 5 at RedTail. Jackie Chang tied for eighth.
The UCF Challenge victory was the third consecutive for North Carolina, dating to fall triumphs in the NCAA Fall Preview and the Tar Heel Intercollegiate. It’s the first time a North Carolina team has won three in a row since 1989. Now it’s on to the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate.
For Mallett, it’s nice to see that work pay off, but it’s especially nice to be part of a team that has experienced such rapid success. Before the Fall Preview, North Carolina hadn’t won since the 2011 ACC Championship.
“In the bigger scheme of things, previously we hadn’t had a win for over a year, and now we’ve won the last three in a row, so that’s a big turnaround,” Mallett said. “I think we’re good enough to win every week, and now it’s actually starting to happen.”
How does it feel to be three victories deep so early in the spring? Mann’s response was met with grins from her team. It’s likely not going to be a quiet trip home.
“I like four in a row.”