BRYAN, Texas (AP) — Tennessee’s Erica Popson brings a four-tournament winning streak into the NCAA women’s golf championship.
Popson is the first NCAA Division I golfer to win four tournaments in a row since Lorena Ochoa captured seven straight from 2001-02.
The sophomore hopes to continue her winning streak that began in March. She will lead the Volunteers in the 24-team tournament starting Wednesday.
The reserved Popson flashes a big smile when asked about chasing the streak Ochoa posted while she was at Arizona.
“That’s pretty awesome,” she said. “She’s such an awesome player and she’s unbelievable, so it’s great to be mentioned in a sentence with her.”
Popson has dealt with a lingering left thumb injury since joining the team and learning to deal with it has improved her game.
“She’s had to really grow up,” Tennessee coach Judi Pavon said. “Last year she would really push it and overdo it and she ended up having to sit out for four months because of it. I know she’d like to practice more than she gets to, but she’s really grown up and matured.”
Popson admitted that she is still bothered by her thumb, but that it’s become easier to handle with time.
Popson’s most recent win came when she shot an 8-under 208 to win the West Regional by five strokes and help her team to a second place finish. She felt like she was mentally weak in the early part of the season and has gotten stronger – and better.
“It just all goes together,” she said. “The more work you put in and the more you see it reflecting in your game, the more you start to trust and believe it. So the past few weeks I’ve put myself in a lot of situations and got myself less nervous.”
Popson and Tennessee will be joined at the tournament by top teams Southern California and UCLA, as well as defending champion Purdue. UCLA and USC have each won two titles. UCLA last won in 2004 and Southern Cal’s last championship came in 2008.
USC won the West Regional for its second straight regional title and its fifth in six seasons to advance to the championship for the 14th straight season. Senior Lizette Salas finished in second place behind Popson and freshman Sophia Popov was third.
UCLA won the Central Regional to earn its school-record 11th straight championship appearance. They are hoping for a better showing at the final than they had when they played the Traditions Club in the fall and turned in their worst performance of the season.
A couple of newcomers will join the traditional powers in this year’s championship as Notre Dame and Coastal Carolina make their first appearances.
Coastal Carolina coach Katie Quinney said she hopes her golfers understand the tradition they are starting for the school and also their conference as they become the first team in Big South history to compete in the final.
She doesn’t expect them to be overwhelmed by the big stage.
“They understand what they’ve done to get here and it was their goal all year long,” Quinney said. “So it wasn’t anything that really surprised them because they dedicated themselves and committed themselves to doing it all year long.”
Notre Dame finished the Central Regional with a 37-over par 901 to grab fifth place and a spot in the championship. Coach Susan Holt said her team is made up of the four best recruiting classes in the history of the program and she told them at the beginning of the season that they should expect to be successful.
“It’s been a goal that I’ve had for the program,” Holt said of reaching the final. “I’ve been here five years and when I came to Notre Dame I just really felt like it was a place where you could be successful. It’s a real defining moment for our program and for this group to be the ones that take it to that next level is pretty special.”
Tournament host Texas A&M overcame a five-stroke deficit in the last four holes of the West Regional to get the chance to participate in the event on its home course.
“Exciting is a good word, however relief would be better,” coach Trelle McCombs said of her team’s comeback. “It was exciting all the way until the last hole. To be that many shots down with four holes to play, it was something that doesn’t happen very often. They all kind of rallied and they had no thoughts of not making it. They were very determined.”