Young Illini lady golfers take on their toughest field yet at Lady Northern

By Rich Mayor

For the young Illinois women’s golf team, this weekend’s Lady Northern will be a measure of its growth.

The Illini will do battle against the best field they’ve seen all year at Kampen Course in West Lafayette, Ind., beginning Saturday. Every team in the Big Ten will be in the mix, including host No. 22 Purdue, as well as No. 16 Ohio State and No. 20 Michigan State. No. 23 Notre Dame is another notable team in the stacked field.

“I think we’re going to finish, and I don’t want to put this pressure, but I think we’re going to finish close to the top,” freshman Samantha Sloan said. “We’ve played this course, and we played it very well. I feel like all us freshmen, we’ve learned a lot and now we’re ready to apply what we’ve learned.”

Head coach Renee Slone emphasized course management and smart shot selection as keys to this weekend. She also called Kampen Course “one of the most challenging golf courses in the nation,” but devised a plan for her young team to gain experience on it before the tournament.

“About a month ago, we took the entire team over there and played a round, actually one of our qualifying rounds for a different tournament, because I thought it would be beneficial for all of them to see the golf course,” Slone said. “It’s a golf course that, the more you see it, the more you play it, the more confident and comfortable you play on it. You need to play it a few times to really get a good feel for it. So we got a nice sneak preview of the course, and we should be well-prepared.”

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The lineup for the Illini includes freshman Hailey Koschmann, who has finished in the individual top-20 in her first three tournaments at the collegiate level. Joining her are senior Nancy Featherstone, sophomore Raquel Hopton and freshmen Sloan and Nora Lucas. The freshmen are competing in just their fourth collegiate tournament, but Slone sees light bulbs flicking on.

“The freshmen just seem more comfortable, more relaxed,” Slone said. “They’ve gotten adjusted to college, gotten through that phase. They’ve had a lot of growth in the short game, different shots, maybe to use different clubs for different shots. Before they’ve gotten stuck using the same club to chip with all the time, but now they’ve got a little more of a variety in the bag so they can make the shots that are called for.”

In their last tournament, the Windy City Collegiate Classic, the Illini broke the 300-stroke barrier for the first time this season, tallying a 299 in the second round. The first and third rounds weren’t quite as successful, but the team saw a ray of hope shining off the 299.

“(The 299) was definitely a big boost,” Slone said. “They know they can do it, and they know they can do it in competition. That’s always very helpful, when you can break one of those thresholds. So now this week we just want to go out and have five solid scores.”