WALLA WALLA - The Whitman College women's golf team is in Angola, Ind., this week for its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division III National Championship Tournament.
Whitman is one of 19 teams and six individuals set to battle through four rounds of golf, starting Tuesday, at Zollner Golf Course on the campus of Trine University.
Whitman, ranked No. 16 nationally in the latest golf coaches association poll, takes the No. 12 seed into the first two rounds of the tournament.
The Missionary line-up starts with a pair of sophomores, Catelyn Webber and Elaine Whaley, playing in the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively.
Junior Tate Head plays at No. 3 while sophomore Katie Zajicek is No. 4 and first-year Missionary Kelly Sweeney fills the fifth and final spot. Sarah Debs, slowed by injury in recent weeks, is the first alternate while junior Caitlin Holland is at the tournament in support of her teammates and coach Skip Molitor.
"This is an exciting time for our players," Molitor said. "They are floating on cloud nine and can't wait to get on the course and test themselves against the best teams in the country. They feel honored to represent Whitman at this level, and I know they're going to play their hearts out."
Whitman is matched with 10th-seeded Williams and 11th-seeded St. Olaf's for the first two rounds of the tournament. That means each of Whitman's players will make the rounds in threesomes comprised of their numbered counterparts at the other two schools.
The No. 5 threesome for Whitman, Williams and St. Olaf's tees off at 8:50 a.m. (EDT) on Tuesday. The remaining four threesomes will follow at 10-minute intervals.
For Wednesday's second round, tee times for the Whitman-Williams-St. Olaf's players start at 1:20 p.m. (EDT).
After the first two rounds are complete, the 19 teams will be re-seeded and re-grouped (based on scores) for the final two rounds.
Both Whitman and St. Olaf's followed a similar path to reach this week's tournament. While Whitman qualified by knocking off favored George Fox in the Northwest Conference post-season tournament, St. Olaf's did the same by upsetting Gustavus Adolphus at their conference tourney.
Gustavus and George Fox then received the only two at-large berths available this week to conference-aligned teams.
Top-ranked Methodist University (Fayetteville, N.C.) is the odds-on favorite to add to its string of national titles this week. The Monarchs have won the NCAA DIII crown every year since 2000, when the DII and DIII tournaments were separated.
"There are a whole bunch of teams finely focused this week on who can become the first team to take the national title away from Methodist," Molitor said.
Methodist claimed its 14th straight title a year ago, beating runner-up Gustavus by 12 strokes in a tournament shortened to three rounds by thunderstorms.
Last September, the Monarchs shot a 36-hole score of 630 at one early tournament, edging DePauw by a single stroke while three other schools stayed with a dozen shots of the lead.
One of Whitman's strengths is the depth of its talent, Molitor said. "I would guess that our depth is as good as any team here. In terms of stroke average, there is less than two shots separating our top six players."
As Whitman players soak up what it means to play in a national championship tournament, Molitor is delighted that his roster is a young one.
"It's a coach's dream to be here with a roster that doesn't have a single senior," he said. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, but every moment, hole and round this week will benefit our players when they return for next season."
Whitman and other teams in the tournament are playing a practice round on Monday.