ETSU among Pepperdine's chasers at Red Sky
WOLCOTT, Colo. – The mercury hovered just below 60 degrees Monday evening as East Tennessee State hovered around Sian Evans (pronounced Shawn), the last to finish at Red Sky Golf Club’s ninth hole. The sun, by that point, had dropped completely behind the mountain that divides the Red Sky property, but you might say “chilly” is just the way East Tennessee State’s Buccaneers like it.
Evans, in the anchor position, had flown the green, and after standing with head coach Stefanie Shelton for several minutes in the long grass, dropped her first chip short before holing the next.
“The second shot, my coach was like, ‘Just hole it,’ ” Evans said. It’s a good example of how ETSU has decided to approach the season.
That par closed a 4-over 76 for Evans. She was one of three players to come in on that number, and ETSU counted a 77 for its fourth score. The Buccaneers hit a drought on the closing holes, and Shelton attributes that to flying greens. ETSU couldn’t make birdies, and thus dropped shots.
The Buccaneers bounced between second and third as the first waves came in, but at 17-over 305 by day’s end, were fifth on the team leaderboard. Pepperdine ran away with the team lead and stands at 1-over 289. TCU was the next closest pursuer, at 13-over 301, and the next four teams are within seven shots of that number.
Shelton couldn’t have forecast how this round would turn out. Aside from her squad’s determination, she says it’s an unpredictable team. The Buccaneers lineup has fluctuated early season because of injury and inner-team competition.
“Both tournaments we went into I had no clue what was going to happen,” Shelton said.
At the Mary Fossum Invitational, ETSU’s season opener, the Buccaneers posted the lowest final-round score in the 15-team field to climb into sixth. That, too, was a chilly day.
Evans’ explanation for that is simple: “We’re from Europe.”
Indeed, the Red Sky lineup includes players from England, Spain, Germany, Malaysia and Canada. Even players from “hot countries,” as Evans said, have experience playing in European events.
Shelton sees it a little differently.
“I think this team is just determined to play well this year,” she said. ETSU ended last year with an Atlantic Sun Conference title and an NCAA Regional bid, and Shelton said her players are determined to keep that momentum going.
Only one player is new to the ETSU lineup this week (freshman Rachel Pollock), and all four returners experienced Red Sky a year ago. New to the job is assistant coach Lauren Stratton, a native Tennessean who came straight from the Vanderbilt roster. The opening round at Red Sky essentially was the first day on the job for the former first team All-American. It’s important she soak up the scene quickly, because when Shelton steps away at the end of March to have her second child, the team will be in Stratton’s hands.
ETSU finished eighth at this tournament a year ago, but more importantly learned the secrets of this high-altitude gem. Ice-cold rain and winds washed out the majority of ETSU’s practice round Sunday, but the team still looked at the holes, then collectively pulled out yardage books and scorecards in the evening for a quick study session.
“Last night, we were able to go to the golf course and remember the holes,” Shelton said.
Pepperdine, a team ETSU and Co. will spend the next 36 holes chasing, knows the feeling.
“This is definitely a course where it’s good to see it,” Pepperdine senior Grace Na said.
Pepperdine went 5 under during the first six holes and led by as many as 11 as the team entered the much more difficult back nine at Red Sky. The team counted five bogeys, a double and a triple during the final six holes, which allowed pursuers to close the gap.
Still, no one outscored a trio of Pepperdine players – Alina Ching, Marissa Chow and Na – at 1-under 71. All three were part of the Wave team that won this event last year.
Pepperdine struggled the most around the greens, but those slippery, undulating complexes are the calling card of this layout.
“When you can go for a pin, you have to pay attention to where you play it,” Ching said.
Neither thought about team score as the day wore on, and head coach Laurie Gibbs did little to remind them. After all, it’s early.
As the famous saying goes, recited Monday by Na, “You can’t win a golf tournament in the first round.”
Still, Pepperdine left much of the rest of the field scrambling for second place.