5 Things: Pepperdine rolls to Red Sky for title defense

Grace Na (file photo)

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WOLCOTT, Colo. – As teams assembled at Red Sky Golf Club on Sunday, a storm cell blew over the top of the mountains to play havoc on practice rounds. Players will need that first look, too. The green complexes at the Tom Fazio design typically give players fits at this event, in its fifth year overall and fourth year at Red Sky.

Here are 5 Things to Know on the eve of Round 1:

• • •

1. IT’S A MARATHON: For Pepperdine, the start-of-the-year schedule worked out so that the Wave rolled from New Mexico to Colorado with no days in between.

Pepperdine won the Branch Law Firm/Dick McGuire Invitational by 12 shots Saturday, then hopped a plane from Albuquerque, N.M., to Denver on Saturday night.

“We’ve never left one tournament to go to another,” head coach Laurie Gibbs said Sunday. “. . . We have a good group; we can handle it.”

For Gibbs, it was a matter of weighing the variables. The Wave went from elevation to elevation, had an easy flight in to Denver and had an opportunity to test its stamina.

A year ago, Gibbs’ team finished ninth at the McGuire then backed that up with victory at Red Sky. This year, Pepperdine has a chance to win its first two tournaments for the first time since the 2009-10 season, when Pepperdine won the Conference Challenge and the Dick McGuire. They also won back-to-back to open the 2005-06 season (McGuire and the Edean Ihlanfeldt Invitational).

As for a title defense at the Conference Challenge, Gibbs says her players are striking the ball well and are playing with confidence.

“They had good energy and were very positive,” Gibbs said of the New Mexico victory.

• • •

2. GOOD AS A WHOLE: SMU head coach Jeanne Sutherland knows the Vail Valley. Sutherland was the assistant pro at Vail Golf Club from 1985-92, then returned as the head professional from 2007-11. The Mustangs' yardage books should be well-noted.

Most importantly, Sutherland wants her players to keep in mind where the ball will run. For their part, the SMU squad is coachable even though it is a young one.

“The players are, as a group, really good,” said Sutherland, who explains that there isn’t one consistent superstar. “. . . They take turns shining.”

It’s a unique experience for Sutherland as a coach, but a refreshing one.

“They came in this year ready for it,” she said. “They haven’t wasted a shot in practice yet.”

• • •

3. WAITING FOR FLAT LAND: San Jose State is without superstar Regan De Guzman this week, and to explain that, look to Red Sky’s steep grades.

The redshirt sophomore, who led the Spartans to the first-round lead at last spring’s NCAA Women’s Championship, had surgery on her right knee during the summer and has nearly recuperated.

Associate head coach Dana Dormann said De Guzman almost re-entered the lineup this week, until Dormann and husband John, San Jose State head coach, considered the venue. They didn’t want De Guzman to reinjure the knee so early in the season.

De Guzman finished 42nd at last spring’s national championship and led the team in scoring last year. Without her, the Spartanas finished 12th in their season opener, the Ptarmigan Ram Classic.

• • •

4. NO NERVES OUT WEST: Illinois State head coach Darby Sligh recognizes that the chance to compete out west is not one that often comes around for a squad in the Missouri Valley Conference. So Sligh, with four seniors and a junior in the team van, is telling her players to be fearless and soak in the experience this week.

“This is a unique chance to let loose,” Sligh said.

The Redbirds have advanced to an NCAA Regional five of the past six years, and Sligh says her players are treating this event like a regional. It’s an early opportunity to get a look at some different competition than Illinois State, ranked No. 133 by Golfweek at the end of the last season, normally sees.

“It’s hard to see those teams that are going to get you out of that purgatory,” Sligh said.

• • •

5. HISTORY LESSON: This year marks the fifth year the Golfweek Women’s Conference Challenge has been contested, and the fourth year it’s been played at Red Sky.

Pepperdine is the only two-time winner in tournament history (2009, ’12). Oklahoma won in 2011 and Virginia won in 2010.

Of the 18 teams in this week’s field, eight teams have never played before (Florida International, Indiana, Arkansas-Little Rock, James Madison, Boston College, Morehead State, Illinois State, Northern Arizona). Pepperdine is the only team that has played every year.

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