Conference tournament is last chance for Gophers to make NCAA regionals

Minnesota, well under the .500 mark, needs a Big Ten Championship to qualify.

The Minnesota men’s golf team has qualified for NCAA regional competition 14 straight times, but it needs nothing less than a defense of its Big Ten title this weekend to keep that streak alive.

The Gophers take the course today at the Forest Akers West Course in East Lansing, Mich., for the first round of the men’s Big Ten Championships. The 54-hole event is scheduled to conclude Sunday.

Similar to March Madness, the teams that win their conference tournament receive an automatic berth to postseason play. After that, at large bids are awarded based on ranking, but teams are required to have an overall win-loss record of .500.

Minnesota brings a 42-93-1 into the championships and is currently ranked No. 76 by Golfweek, so a win is its only ticket to the NCAA regionals.

A glance at record and ranking may make it seem as though the Gophers have no shot at a Big Ten Championship, but in golf, it only takes one good weekend to reverse the fortunes of an entire season.

“At the beginning of the season I would have said we had a good chance to win the Big Ten Championship,” associate head coach Andrew Tank said. “It’s the same guys, so there’s nothing to say that we don’t have a chance to win this weekend even though we’ve played poorly. Our goal is to play our best and if we do that we should have a chance.”

But Minnesota’s best has been essentially absent this spring. It’s highest finish thus far as a team is a tie for 13th at the Las Vegas Founders Invitational, and only senior Clayton Rask has cracked the top 20 as an individual – a tie for sixth at the Augusta State Invitational.

Tank left junior Victor Almstrom and sophomore Ben Pisani home from the U.S. Collegiate last weekend in hopes of allowing them some time to regroup.

Pisani said he was able to move past thinking about the technical aspects of his swing and feels more comfortable.

He also noted a trend that should be encouraging to the Gophers.

“Our past couple of seasons, we’ve had some great results in the postseason even though maybe the few tournaments in the spring haven’t suggested that that would happen,” Pisani said. “We’ve been preparing well and we still have belief in our ability and that’s the most important thing.”

Women in Penn. for Big Tens

The Minnesota women’s golf team still has a long road ahead in its quest to become an elite national program, but it has managed to take a few small steps towards that this spring.

A team victory at the Diablo Grande Invitational and five top-10 individual finishes by a group of young Gophers indicates the program is headed in the right direction, but Minnesota isn’t done quite yet.

The Gophers will learn how much further they have to go against two highly ranked teams and the rest of their conference opponents this weekend at the women’s Big Ten Championships in State College, Pa. The 54-hole event begins today and is hosted by Penn State at the university’s Blue Course.

Based strictly on rankings, Purdue is favored to come away with the conference crown, as the Boilermakers are ranked No. 6 nationally in Golfweek’s most recent poll. Sure to give them a run, however, is last year’s Big Ten champion, Michigan State, currently ranked No. 16.

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s results last year were a far cry from the Spartans’, as the Gophers finished the tournament in 11th place.

Only junior Young Na Lee will remember those struggles, however. Joining Lee on the course for Minnesota will be freshmen Teresa Puga, Mary Narsizi, Samantha Sommers and Michelle Edlin.

Associate head coach Kristine Wessinger said Lee’s position as the only experienced Gopher has made her the center of attention this week.

“She’s definitely a leader on the team and I think it’s good for the girls to see where she’s been,” Wessinger said. “They’ve been asking her questions this week about what the Big Ten Championships are like, so it’s been interesting to see them look to her for advice.”

Though she’s happy to give advice, Lee doesn’t see her role as a leader to be necessary. She said the team is ready to play; it’s simply a matter of executing now.

“Everyone’s just excited to be here,” Lee said. “Hopefully we all perform as well as we’ve been practicing.”