Seeking the first conference title in program history, the Virginia women’s golf team tees off at the ACC Championships Thursday morning in Greensboro, N.C. The Cavaliers, ranked No. 23 by Golfstat, face a challenging field that features five top-25 opponents.
Two-time defending conference champion No. 3 Duke will be the favorite to win heading into this year’s contest. The Blue Devils have finished first or second in all four of their tournaments this spring. No. 12 Clemson should also contend for the conference title, despite this being only their first season as a varsity team.
Virginia remains unfazed by the tough lineup though, and will aim for nothing short of the top.
“We’re always expecting to win,” coach Kim Lewellen said. “I would say this is going to be a fun ACC tournament, and little bit different than it has in the past. Clemson joins us for the first time this year and has been doing very well this year, so that will be an added component.”
Virginia’s last outing came at the Bryan National at the end of March, where a strong final round earned the team a fifth place finish, ahead of five other programs in the top-25. Junior Briana Mao had the best score among all Cavaliers with a 10-over 226, one shot better than sophomore Lauren Coughlin and good enough for 19th.
Rather than one great individual performance, Virginia’s success came from getting solid play throughout the lineup, a lesson the team is trying to take into this week’s tournament.
“The fifth place finish [at Bryan National] was really good, and I think that was kind of the point where we started to play better as a team,” Mao said. “On days where maybe one person is having a rough day, we pick up the slack.”
Sedgefield Country Club will play host to the ACC Championships for the sixth straight year. This history with the conference means many of the golfers have played the par-71 course at least once in their career. The Cavaliers will use that familiarity to their advantage as they strategize for the three-day tournament.
“This course — we’re fortunate, as are the other teams, since we’ve played it in the past, and it’s one that requires a lot of course management, a lot of thinking,” Lewellen said. “We’re going to really have a game plan for each hole. If we can get that course management down for this golf course, we have a lot of good ball strikers on our team and we’ll be able to really have a good showing.”
At last year’s conference championships, Virginia finished third behind a historic performance from then-senior Brittany Altomare. Altomare’s three-round total of a 4-over 217 placed her atop the 45-player field, becoming the first Cavalier in program history to win the ACC Women’s Golf individual championship. Virginia as a team shot 909, behind Duke’s 882 and NC State’s 906.
The Cavaliers’ two most experienced players, seniors Elizabeth Brightwell and Portland Rosen, will be expected to perform well during this year’s tournament. They have posted consistently strong scores throughout their time at Virginia, combining for six top-10 finishes in their careers. Rosen placed 17th at ACCs in 2013, and Brightwell finished 35th.
“[Brightwell and Rosen] have played very well this year,” Lewellen said. “Both of them have had a top-10 finish at a tournament [in the 2013-14 season]. They’ve both played this course before and have a good idea of what it takes to perform well.”
The two veterans have embraced their roles as the team’s leaders. Other Cavalier golfers look to Brightwell and Rosen for guidance on improving their game both in tournaments and in practice. They’ve both experienced the highs and lows of playing, and are always ready to help their teammates regain composure after a tough round.
“They’re our captains, and they lead us with believing in ourselves and encouraging us on the course,” Mao said. “When someone hits a bad shot, they’re really good at being out there going ‘come on, guys.’”
Virginia tees off at 9:40 a.m. Thursday in the opening round, paired with No. 21 North Carolina and No. 25 Florida State.