FAYETTEVILLE - Coach Shauna Taylor and her Razorbacks golf team can’t pretend they’ll soon forget the thrill of winning the University of Arkansas’ first Southeastern Conference overall team championship in any women’s sport other than cross country and indoor and outdoor track.
But marking “Mission Accomplished” for her Razorbacks this season?
Forget that, SEC Coach of the Year Taylor rebuts as her nationally No. 3 Razorbacks, led by SEC Player of the Year Maria Fassi come as the No. 1 seed into the NCAA’s Austin Regional Monday through Wednesday in Austin, Texas.
The top five teams after three days of stroke play among the 18-team field in Austin in seeded order including Arkansas, Texas, Michigan State, Florida, Auburn, Oklahoma, Houston, Miami, Baylor, Texas A&M, Brigham Young, East Carolina, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech, Texas-San Antonio, Georgetown, Houston Baptist and Missouri State join the top five teams from this week’s other five regionals to compete for the NCAA Women’s Championship May 18 through 23 at the Karsten Creek Course in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
The Razorbacks can’t get to Stillwater via Austin if they get detoured in Austin dwelling on their April 18 through 22 SEC run in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I think they know there’s a bigger mission,” Taylor said Friday before the Razorbacks’ last pre-Regional practice at their home course at The Blessings. “We tried to celebrate the SEC Championship for a few days but now it’s back to work and finishing up school and back to our normal routine. That’s something that I’ve been very adamant about this week that we be normal.”
For sure Taylor, first an Arkansas assistant before promoted to head coach, relishes SEC champion as a descriptive new normal.
“It’s taken the monkey off my back for sure,” Taylor said. “I’ve been 16 years waking up every day trying to help our team win a championship and am just really excited that it finally happened. I think it could open a floodgate of cool things in front of us. Once you get the first one the next ones sometimes are easier.”
This team has a shot in Stillwater of joining indoor and outdoor track to become the third UA women’s program to win a national championship, but can’t do so unless meeting top five finish expectations in Austin.
“We talked about expectations this week,” Taylor said. “Everybody expects us to do something, but it’s just about us doing Arkansas and Arkansas’ way. If we do that, we’ll be in good position.”
Her five that kept Arkansas alive in SEC stroke play, Fassi, Kaylee Benton, Alana Uriell, Dylan Kim and Cara Gorlei, to advance for match play victories over nationally 12th-ranked Florida, nationally No. 1 Alabama, and 3-2 over No. 9 South Carolina for the championship, with Benton 2-putting to win the last hole to secure her match and the championship after Fassi and Kim won their matches, represent Arkansas in Austin.
They made her SEC Coach of the Year, Taylor said.
“Great players make coaches look really good,” Taylor said. “It’s all on them. They’ve done a great job of preparing and doing what’s required to do great things. Obviously Maria doing the great things she’s done helped her win that (SEC Player of the Year) award, as well. She’s a hard worker and a great leader in the locker room and kind of a dream student-athlete.”
Benton became Arkansas’ Birmingham belle, clinching the crown in match play over South Carolina after match play victories over Florida and Auburn off a horrific stroke play start.
“Match play is a different beast,” Taylor said. “You don’t have to worry about that you make a 10 and it only counts one. You just lose the hole. She started the first round of SEC’s with a 46 and then ends up being a tremendous three points for us in all three matches. It came down to her match but everybody else contributed in a huge way.
“We always talk about that it takes a village,” Taylor said. “It’s everybody’s contribution, not just Kaylee 2-putting to win the SEC Championship. We don’t get there without Maria Fassi and Dylan Kim getting us the two points before that.”
Or, without Uriell throughout the season though her last hole problems, closing her losing match to South Carolina put the onus on Benton.
“She’s been great,” Taylor said of Uriell’s post SEC Tournament response. “I think she learned a lot and we learned a lot. She knows what do to do. She has been a staple for us. We are not where we are without her. She’s done a fantastic job.”