NCAA regional appearances aren’t exactly new to the East Carolina women’s golf team; the Pirates have qualified for the first level of the postseason tournament eight times in the past ten years. But the 2018 version of the team has two distinctions that head coach Kevin Williams has never seen in one of his squads before.
First of all, four of the Pirate golfers are ranked in the top 250 players in the nation. On top of that, every one of the women on the team has shot a 68 or better during a tournament at some point this season.
“All five girls could be the number one player,” Williams said. “I feel as good about regional play as I ever have going into it.”
The Pirates were given the No. 12 seed in the Austin, Texas regional, one of 18 teams competing in a field topped by Arkansas and Texas. The highest regional finish for Williams’ squads in previous regionals was ninth place twice — in 2009 and 2016. The top six teams from each regional will advance to the national championships, which will be held May 18-23 at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
Since the beginning of the season last fall, Williams and his golfers have made “Stillwater” a mantra representing their postseason objective, he said, popularizing the hashtag #stillwater18. Since the regionals have become a regular destination for the Pirate women, they are fixed on the goal of making it past that step to the big tournament.
The determination to reach Stillwater is fueled by disappointment from last season, when ECU was the last team left out of the tournament.
“Playing with a chip on your shoulder is kind of nice sometimes,” Williams said.
Williams considers his team underranked at No. 48 nationally — the Pirates were ranked at No 31 after returning from a winter tournament in Puerto Rico — but he knew that even their spring ranking was enough to qualify them for the regional field, so he organized a watch party at Ironwood last week when the regional seedings were announced. Last year they knew it would be down to the wire, so the team did not gather.
The team won two fall tournaments and placed second in two this winter, but during March the golfers played more sluggishly than they had all season, he said. Frequent reminders of Stillwater, along with some lineup adjustments, helped re-align the Pirates leading into the American Athletic Conference tournament last month.
The Pirates finished tied for second out of 10 teams at conference, helping their ranking and their momentum heading to Austin. Sophomore Dorthea Forbrigd tied for first in the tournament with Wichita State’s Taryn Torgerson, then lost in a playoff to finish second overall in the conference.
After the event, Forbrigd and junior Carley Cox were named to the AAC All-Conference Team and Kathryn Carson was selected as the AAC Freshman of the Year.
Besides national powerhouses Arkansas and Texas, the Austin regional includes No. 5 seed Auburn, which ECU defeated in February at Central Florida, and No. 7 seed Houston, which placed first in the American conference tournament 14 strokes ahead of ECU.
With more depth than any team Williams has coached in his 10 years leading the Pirates, the 2018 Pirates can travel to Texas Friday with the confidence that they have the tools to make it out of the regional for their first trip to nationals.
Before they leave, Williams was planning to have ECU men’s coach Andrew Sapp address the women, he said, because Sapp led both the Michigan and North Carolina teams to the national finals during his time coaching those teams, taking third place with the Wolverines in 2009.
“He knows what it takes to get there, so he is going to talk to them,” Williams said. “He’ll tell them, ‘You don’t have to be perfect. Just play each shot, and limit your mistakes.”