Editor’s note: This is the last in a 10-part series previewing the UC Davis fall sports.
There once was a time that the UC Davis women’s golf team had to go knocking, hoping a top-level tournament would open the door.
These days — thanks to three NCAA top-20 finishes since 2008 — the Aggies are A-list celebrities and any important links gathering isn’t the same without them.
Now, after a 16th-place finish in last May’s NCAA Championships, could UCD fans dare dream of even bigger things with these 2013-14 linksters?
Top guns Demi Runas and Amy Simanton are gone and second-year coach Anna Temple has only one senior on her six-member squad.
But might this be an Aggie team that could flirt with the school’s first Division I title?
It’s a long season — which starts Monday with the two-round Ptarmigan Fall Classic in Fort Collins, Colo. — and Temple knows there are a lot of hazards to clear and traps to blast from before even thinking about year-end play, but …
“I think we’ll improve on our (last year’s) finish because our younger players are developing so quickly and so well that they’ll fill the void left by Demi and Amy graduating — especially with the addition of Paige Lee, who is one of the best junior players of her class,” Temple said.
UCD rolled through last season’s Big West tourney at San Luis Obispo as Runas earned medalist honors while teammates Andrea Wong, Bev Vatananugulkit and Simanton placed second through fourth, respectively. Betty Chen was 12th.
As league champions, the Aggies qualified for the NCAA Regionals in Oklahoma, where their sixth-place finish sent the locals to Georgia for the May 21-24 finals.
In both tournaments, it was Chen who was the locals’ top finisher.
Wong, Chen and Vatananugulkit all return for the 2013-14 campaign. Senior Jessica Chulya, junior Blair Lewis — both of whom contributed mightily a season ago — join freshman Lee, who prepped at Granite Bay, in rounding out a young-but-seasoned, eager squad.
“Last year, we had eight really good players,” Temple, a former Cal player and assistant coach, told The Enterprise. “This year we have six really good players.”
Sophomore Chen had shown flashes of promise throughout her freshman season (eighth place at the Peg Barnard in Palo Alto), but it wasn’t until the NCAAs that she emerged from Runas’ shadow.
Showcasing the further fine-tuning of her game these past three months, Chen won last weekend’s California State Fair Tournament at Bartley Cavanaugh Golf Course.
“She’s developed a lot over the last season and by spring really became a staple of our lineup,” Temple said.
But the coach still sees junior Vatananugulkit (from Cerritos) as “our most consistent player. Her game is different from everybody else on the team. She’s not a long hitter, but her short game is really good.
“She’s a very consistent ball striker and that suits her game well. She knows what is going to happen when she plays — and (she) can have control in that way over her game.”
In addition to being a plum recruit, Lee is a local player who brings potential, family and friends to the program. Temple loves have a nearby standout drawing attention to the Aggies.
Wong, a sophomore, was the Big West Freshman of the Year. A motivated big-ball smacker from St. Ignatius Prep in San Francisco, Wong — like the rest of her Aggie sisterhood — has been hard at work during the summer.
“She’s really motivated,” her coach said, adding that her women’s overall desire to improve that 16th-place national finish has become a team hallmark.
“Individual improvement for each player is really dependent upon what they want to do,” Temple noted. “It’s really hard (as a coach) to push a player to be anything more than what they actually want.
“Luckily, we have very ambitious players who want to be great. That’s easy then to help them to improve when they want to be Big West Player of the Year … when they want to be All-American (both of which Runas was in 2012-13).”
Temple said a coach’s challenge might be to “keep that fire burning the whole year.”
Helping to stoke that flame are veterans Chulya and Lewis.
A graduate of Shrewsbury International High in Bangkok, Thailand, Chulya’s work ethic leads by example and, after turning in another summer of success in working on her game, Temple sees Chulya as a key contributor on and off the course.
Lewis, a Parker (La Mesa) grad, has taken a giant step forward since May.
“She’s raw,” Temple reports in the most positive way. “She had a lot of room for improvement, worked hard over the summer and her swing is looking really, really good. She’ll be a great asset.”
So what’s game plan for UCD?
Temple sees the fall tourney slate as a way to acclimate to travel — like that of the 2012 NCAA postseason when Oklahoma and Georgia were on the travelogue. Tournaments like the Hoosier Fall Invitational and the Dick McGuire tourney in New Mexico will help in that regard.
Playing at the Stanford Intercollegiate (Oct.25-27) and the Golfweek Conference Challenge (Sept. 23-25) will put the Aggies tee-to-tee with the nation’s top teams and players.
“We can see the bigger teams,” Temple said of the rugged fall slate, adding that getting used to the top-flight competition early “takes some of the pressure off when we see these (schools) at the end … and they’re just another team.”
Notes: Runas shot a 214 to pick up her first professional win Aug. 8 at the Cactus Tour event in Buckeye, Ariz. Seven strokes back in fourth? Aggie stablemate Simanton. … Temple credits former UCD coach Anne Walker (now at Stanford) for starting the legacy of getting invitations to the tougher tournaments. … Temple played professionally in Europe and Africa with a modicum of success. Her 64 at a South African tourney is a standout memory. … Jacqueline Williams — like Temple, a former Golden Bear big stick — joins the club as assistant coach. … The spring season opens Feb. 15 with the Peg Barnard at Stanford. … UCD considers El Macero Country Club its home course, but plays and practices at Wildhorse Golf Course as well. On occasion, to give her women different challenges, the Aggie practice at Del Paso, Yocha Dehe at Cache Creek and Green Valley (Fairfield).
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.