Near home and seeing fan support, Northwestern takes early lead at NCAA Championship

Sarah Cho Northwestern leadSarah Cho Northwestern lead Courtesy of NU Athletics

Near home and seeing fan support, Northwestern takes early lead at NCAA Championship

Women

Near home and seeing fan support, Northwestern takes early lead at NCAA Championship

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. – There could’ve been pressure.

Northwestern has been so close to match play at the NCAA Championship each of the last two years. The Wildcats contended for one of those top-eight spots in an 10th-place finish at the 2015 tournament. Last year, the team missed out on a playoff for that eighth spot by a single shot.

There’s more, though. Friday’s first-round at this championship promised brutal conditions and then delivered – significant rain and wind with temperatures in the 40s to boot. As a cold-weather school, right up Northwestern’s alley.

Oh, and nationals is near home, too: Northwestern’s Evanston, Ill., campus is roughly 60 miles from this week’s venue, Rich Harvest Farms. That means home crowds, and heightened expectations.

But Northwestern’s coaches told the players in a Thursday night meeting to see it as precisely the opposite of a pressure situation. And they did.

“We saw it as an opportunity,” said Kacie Komoto, a senior. “We had a home crowd for once. We got to be that team (that gets the cheers) today.”

The Wildcats sure got plenty of them Friday. Northwestern, No. 11 in the nation, dominated in the afternoon wave in the opening round, finishing the day at 13 over for an early two-shot lead over Kent State at Rich Harvest Farms.

After the morning of brutality, the Wildcats and the remainder of the afternoon group got a bit of a reprieve: the early rain died down mid-way through the afternoon-wave action and the high winds took a bit of a breather in the closing stretch.

That’s not going to put a damper on Northwestern’s strong early play, especially with Friday’s significant fan support.

Several members of the school’s men’s golf team were on-site for a time Friday and Jim Phillips, Northwestern’s athletic director, also caught the action.

“There were 4-5 times today where we heard some good roars, and we really knew it was for us,” said Emily Fletcher, Northwestern’s head coach. “We were thrilled to have a little bit of that.”

One such roar even went off on 18 green right as Komoto was talking about the home crowd support.

Another promising sign: Janet Mao led the team on Day 1.

The sophomore fired a 1-over 73 to sit in a tie for third early on the individual leaderboard.

It’s not that Mao has never shown this type of ability, it’s that she’s been inconsistent. She won her regional last year and was Second Team All-Big Ten, and she has two top-four finishes this season. But she also possesses four 2016-17 showings of 50th or worse (one was as an individual).

But that hasn’t dampened her teammates’ support.

“We never doubt her as a team,” Komoto said.

Case in point: Mao finished T-73 at the NCAA Athens Regional earlier this month, but coaches saw something important from that event.

Mao has been known to get too down herself, and she made a debilitating triple bogey on the University of Georgia Golf Course’s par-3 13th in the final round. Three holes later, there were several groups piled up on another par 3.

When Mao approached the tee box, her attitude was startling.

“You couldn’t tell she had struggled three or four holes ago,” Fletcher said, “which was huge.”

So was Mao’s play Friday. After an opening bogey, she launched a 5-wood from 194 yards downwind to 15 feet at the par-5 second for an eagle. She was 1 over for the round on the difficult par-4 17th when she knocked an 8-iron from 131 yards to 15 feet. She rolled that in for another birdie.

Both Northwestern golf teams have been working with noted sports psychologist Fran Pirozzolo this season. Pirozzolo was at Northwestern practice earlier this week, and helped give Mao the mental tidbits she needed to put things back on track.

“Being able to walk through a few things that have got in my way and re-evaluate … I think that has really paid off,” Mao said.

Overall, three Northwestern players are in the top 10 after 18 holes. Hannah Kim and Stephanie Lau both shot 75 to sit in a tie for ninth. Komoto and Sarah Cho are tied for 33rd at 6 over.

The Wildcats will go off early in Round 2 Saturday if forecasted thunder showers don’t halt play.

Regardless of weather, the team may not get the exact same fan support Saturday. The men’s squad will likely be back on campus enjoying Dillo Day – Northwestern’s annual music festival day. (But also a special day of campus-wide revelry.)

The women’s crew won’t mind.

“Honestly, I wouldn’t want them to come tomorrow. I think they should enjoy that,” Komoto said, with a laugh. “We’ll take care of business here, they can have fun and we’ll see them out here again Sunday.”

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