Kalen Harris, in analyzing her South Carolina team’s recent Ping/Arizona State Invitational victory, would be justified in putting considerable weight on that title. Previously No. 12 in Golfweek’s rankings, the Gamecocks beat six top-10 programs and nine of the 11 programs in the Pac-12 (top-ranked USC was absent the Ping). They moved to No. 10 with their second spring victory.
“As everybody knows, once we hit the postseason,” Harris says, “everything goes back to zero.”
It’s logical reasoning, but it could be stated in a different way. Everyone also knows that once South Carolina hits the postseason, it performs.
The Gamecocks have won two NCAA Regionals (2010, ’12) since Harris took over the program in January 2008. They have qualified for the NCAA finals five of the past six years, and in 2012, finished fifth, only five shots behind champion Alabama.
This spring has been a breakthrough for a program that tends to fly under the radar, despite those two regional titles. South Carolina won the Florida State Match-Up last month for its first regular-season title since Harris took over. The Gamecocks finished fifth then second in their next two events before arriving in Tempe, Ariz.
“Everybody was kind of due for a low round, and that’s what happened,” Harris said.
South Carolina took a six-shot lead into the final round, and hung on as Duke surged over the opening holes. Senior Samantha Swinehart turned at 4 under and sophomore Sarah Schmelzel got to 2 under through 10 holes. By that point, the momentum had swung back in South Carolina’s favor.
“They played to win on the golf course,” Harris said. “They did not back down.”
Swinehart finished with a final-round 6-under 66 to lead the charge on the final day. Schmelzel had posted a 68 in Round 2 and freshman Katelyn Dambaugh opened with 68. Junior Justine Dreher had three even-par rounds, and senior Suzie Lee, rounded out the Gamecock lineup with the No. 5 position. Lee has competed in three NCAA Regionals and two NCAA Championships with South Carolina.
Thus is the team dynamic for South Carolina this season. In years past, there has been a standout and a supporting cast. On the recruiting trail this summer, Harris ticked off her roster on her fingers as she predicted it could be one of her most talented squads yet, top to bottom. South Carolina was Golfweek’s preseason No. 20 team, but has far exceeded those expectations.
“You’ve kind of seen the foundation in the last five years,” Harris said. “We may not have had the regular season that we have had this year, but we’ve always been there in the postseason.”
Harris’ attention to detail in practice has helped set said foundation, and another part of that is the work of South Carolina Director of Golf Puggy Blackmon.
Blackmon, one of the most experienced voices in women’s college golf, has been South Carolina’s glue. He was instrumental in bringing the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate to nearby Long Cove Golf Club on Hilton Head Island, S.C., in 2012. A year later, it drew the sixth-strongest field of the season.
Big picture aside, Blackmon is the kind of guy who will get on a plane over the summer just to observe a player’s private lesson. He spent two days in Columbus, Ohio, on the range with Swinehart and her swing coach Gerry Hammond. That allowed Blackmon to better understand Swinehart’s thought process and technique.
“It was a really good two days of working just to understand (my swing),” Swinehart said.
Said Harris, “His passion for the game and passion to help and want to better people … is just amazing.”
In nine days, South Carolina arrives at the SEC Championship with the second-best national ranking (after Arkansas, at No. 5) in the conference. That’s the next streak to break – the Gamecocks haven’t won a conference championship since 2002.
“It feels good that we can compete with the top-ranked teams and that we’ve been doing it during the postseason,” said Swinehart, who last competed in a regional with the Gamecocks as a freshman in 2012. “…It’s been a fun year and I want to end it on a good note.”
It’s after this sentiment that Swinehart reveals what she and her teammates did to celebrate Ping/ASU hardware. With a mid-morning flight booked the next day, the team got up before dawn to hike Camelback Mountain in Phoenix. It seems a fitting way to signal the end of a most successful regular season.