Baldry: Mocs’ foreign flavor pays off

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Why don’t college coaches recruit American players? It’s a common question in women’s golf. Before you judge Chattanooga’s Colette Murray, listen to her answer.

“I was having trouble getting any attention whatsoever from even Tennessee players,” said Murray, a Scottish lass who brought five international players to the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship.

Murray’s fast start has turned plenty of heads, taking her team to the NCAA finals in the program’s second year. It’s an incredibly impressive feat at an unheralded school like Chattanooga. American players aren’t interested in small-time projects.

With nothing happening State-side, Murray, 27, widened her search to Australia, Sweden, Colombia, Peru and Austria. Two sophomores and three freshmen tackled Caves Valley May 19 and ended Round 1 tied for 21st.

“No one really expects us to do anything,” said sophomore Emma de Groot, who thinks her team is perfectly capable of posting a top 10 this week. “We know there are four or five teams that are just better than we are, deeper. After that we know we can compete with everyone else.”

Chattanooga has that confidence because Murray put together a strong schedule for a second-year program from the hills of Tennessee. The Mocs’ strength of schedule improved from 108th in 2007-08 to 50th this year. Murray warned her team from the start of this year that their schedule “is a different beast now.”

In its first year, Chattanooga won three tournaments, one with only four players after Kelly Brotherton left school when her father fell ill. Murray recruited a girl from the soccer team to fill in since NCAA regulations require teams to play with five players in at least eight events. The Mocs finished the season ranked 70th.

Strength of schedule didn’t matter to the first set of recruits since Murray said “They didn’t know left from right when they were coming in.”

The trio of freshmen playing this week, however, were being recruited from other schools and wanted to compete against the best.

Enter summer camp connections.

Murray spends her summers working at various camps across the country, meeting American kids and high-profile coaches who in turn offer a spot in their tournaments. Friends in high places gave Chattanooga its coming-out party at Vanderbilt’s Mason Rudolph Women’s Championship. Sure there was a huge intimidation factor that first time out, but it began to subside as the Mocs made their way across the country. Tennessee, Auburn and Arizona each extended invites last fall to the up-and-coming program.

Coaches aren’t allowed to use carts this week, meaning players have to tote their own snacks, sweaters and rain gear for the first time all year. It also means coaches can’t get from Point A to B at a quick clip.

Not a big deal for schools with an assistant. Murray, however, is one of two coaches flying solo this week. (Tulane also doesn’t have an assistant.)

Good thing she’s the second-youngest coach in the field. Murray gets mistaken for a player everywhere she goes. While watching her team negotiate No. 7, a “wee guy” asked Murray why she wasn’t teeing it up.

“My playing days are over,” she said with a laugh.

Jacksonville State never made it to regionals when Murray went to school. When they fell short her senior year, it gutted the competitive coach.

“From my experience, I think I push them a little bit harder than maybe I should because I know what it’s like to come so close and not get there,” Murray said.

The young coach from Scotland did what she had to “get there” fast. Murray cultivated diamonds on foreign soil and brought them to our national championship.

Maybe now American players will pay attention.

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