Whits’ national golf goal still to be had

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Skip Molitor sees an important similarity between his Whitman College women’s golf team and the school’s women’s basketball team that made such an amazing run to the NCAA Division III national championship game last month in Whitewater, Wis.

“I think our situation is real similar to what the women’s basketball team experienced,” Molitor said. “That first trip tends to provide a tremendous amount of motivation and confidence in regard to getting back there.”

Coach Michelle Ferenz’s basketball team made history a year ago by advancing as far as the Division III Elite Eight. This year’s team won two additional tournament games before losing to FDU-Florham in the title game.

Molitor’s golf squad, led by a trio of tourney-tested seniors, is trying to get back to the national tournament for the second time in three years. The Missionaries qualified for the first time in school history in 2012 and finished 12th in Angola, Indiana.

“Four of the five girls on this year’s team played in the 2012 national finals,” Molitor said. “So one of the things we are banking on is our experience. Hopefully that will be a factor in getting us back there.”

Much will depend on how well Whitman performs at the Northwest Conference Championships that will be contested Saturday and Sunday at the OGA Golf Course in Woodburn, Ore. Whitman enters the regular-season finale in second place in the NWC standings, two points behind George Fox.

If the Missionaries can catch George Fox this weekend and then beat the Bruins in a sudden death playoff, they will claim the conference championship and its automatic berth in the national tournament. Whitman is also in position to receive an at-large invitation to the national tournament should George Fox hold on to first place.

George Fox was invited to nationals in 2012 after finishing second to Whitman in the NWC. However, Whitman’s second-place finish a year ago went unrewarded.

“We didn’t have near the stroke average last year that we have this year,” Molitor said in drawing a comparison between this year and last. “And we were not ranked nationally. We’re ranked 13th nationally right now, and we’ve been ranked as high as 10th.

“I think we have a very legitimate shot at an at-large berth.”

Naturally, the Whits would prefer to avoid the suspense by overtaking George Fox this weekend. And since only two points separate the two schools, Whitman still controls its own destiny.

It has been a hard fought rivalry, Molitor said, between two evenly matched teams.

“It’s remarkable how closely matched we are,” the coach said.

“We have played in four tournaments together this year, and they have won two and we have won two. In the two conference majors, we won the Fall Classic and they won the Spring Classic. And our (overall) stroke totals are identical, down to the last stroke.”

What just might separate the two squads, Molitor believes, is his team’s level of experience.

“We do have three seniors, and a senior-laden team speaks well to standing up to the significance of the moment,” Molitor said. “And four of our players have been on the (OGA) course before, and George Fox’s top player is a freshman.

“So in terms of experience, the nod again goes to us.”

And if weather becomes a factor, more experienced players are more likely to handle adverse conditions.

“In two of the four tournaments we played against George Fox, there were challenging weather conditions the second day,” Molitor recollected. “In both cases, our experience and maturity and toughness played a role in our coming out on top.

“So we are rooting for bad weather this weekend.”

Whitman is coming off a first-place finish in its own Easter Invitational last weekend in which it scored 317 at Veterans Memorial Golf Course and 310 at the Wine Valley Golf Club.

“It was a very important weekend in that those scores are very competitive on the national scale,” Molitor said. “We kind of regained our stride, which allows us to go into the conference championship with a lot of momentum and confidence.”

Senior Katie Zajicek will play No. 1 for Whitman this weekend, and fellow seniors Catelyn Webber and Elaine Whaley will fill the next two slots. Sophomore Alyssa Maine and freshman Lou Points round out the lineup.

“Katie has had a phenomenal career at Whitman,” Molitor said of Zajicek. “She was all-West Region as a sophomore, has been all-conference and has an extremely consistent game. Her two options are playing very well or playing solidly, because she very rarely lets a round get away from her.”

Webber posted a stroke average of 77 during the fall portion of the season, which ranked ninth nationally, and has shown recent signs of regaining that form, Molitor said. And Whaley was named the conference player of the week after posting rounds of 78 and 79 in the Easter Invite.

Maine, Molitor said, is the team’s longest hitter and “as capable of threatening par as anyone we have.” And Points has the lowest stroke average of any freshman in the program’s history, and her 77 last weekend “is another promising indicator.”

Molitor is in his sixth season as the team’s head coach, and Zajicek, Webber and Whaley represent his most successful recruiting class so far.

“They have taken us on a wonderful four-year ride,” Molitor said. “But our motto, as Elaine Whaley likes to say, is ‘The best is yet to come.’ That’s the kind of feeling we have.”

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