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When the Quinnipiac golf team watched the national broadcast of the NCAA tournament selection show on Thursday, the players euphorically exploded once they learned that they will be heading to compete in Athens, Georgia as the 18th seed against the nation’s best.
The Bobcats know that despite their good fortunes this season, the competition is going to be stiff once they tee off in Athens on May 8.
“We’re up against very difficult competition so we’re looking to enjoy ourselves and be relaxed and enjoy the experience,” Quinnipiac head coach John O’Connor said. “As far as beating teams, it’s very difficult for us to beat those teams. They’re very special, but I have five girls on the team that could go low at any given time. It could happen.”
The Bobcats earned their right to compete for a national title when they won the MAAC Tournament on April 23 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Four of the five Quinnipiac starters finished the final round in the top 10 of the tournament.
“All five of them are very hungry competitors,” said O’Connor. They like to win and they know what it’s like to win now, and that’s what they want to keep doing,”
The Bobcats had the luxury of being able to ride five very dependable golfers all season in freshman Alexandra Sazhin, sophomore Luciana Tobia-Palza, sophomore Julia Kemmling, senior Emily Ribbins and junior Estefania Morales, as all of them have been capable of scoring low rounds consistently.
Freshman Alexandra Sazhin finished in first place in the conference tournament by dominating with a three-round total of 231 strokes and finishing with +15. Sazhin’s consistent, low-scoring play has been an X-factor for the Bobcats this year. The key as to why Sazhin has been able to be such a fruitful contributor this year is how she has been able to maintain consistency and constantly shooting close to par.
“I have to keep in mind the same shot-by-shot attitude that the entire team went into the conference playoffs with,” Sazhin said. “We were all in the ‘grind-out and take one shot at a time’ attitude, and I think because of that we were all able to do so well and stay so composed throughout the entire tournament down to the last hole.”
The Bobcats battled extreme weather conditions and felt that the only way to stay consistent was to focus on approaching one shot at a time. This mentality ultimately helped Sazhin lock up her first-place victory after the final round.
“As a result, we really had to stay focused to that last pot,” Sahzin said. “That last two footer was probably one of the difficult things in my life, and two footers are hard enough. I really think that this attitude of focusing on every shot to the very end is really what got me through to the very last hole.”
Sazhin followed in the footsteps of sophomore Luciana Tobia-Palza, by coming into the program as an impact freshman that is capable of winning tournaments.
“Luciana did it exactly the same way as a freshman. Luciana won a couple tournaments last year,” O’Connor said. “Alexandra did a great job at this tournament, but prior to that we hadn’t seen signs of that. Luciana was dominating last year throughout the year. Alexandra did it at just the perfect time and it was very special.”
Tobia-Palza finished the MAAC tournament not far behind Sazhin, placing tied-for-fifth place with 236 strokes and +20 after the three rounds. Tobia-Palza looks to head into the NCAA tournament with excitement and a positive attitude.
“I think the field is gonna be very very hard, but we’re just gonna go learn from our competition and grow as players,” Tobia-Palza said.
This was the second consecutive MAAC title for the Bobcats, as they won last year’s tournament at the same location. Players are seeing the group work ethic and positive attitudes of the team pay off after achieving back-to-back titles.
“We knew it was going to be a lot tougher this year,” Kemmling said. We also got better and we went down to the MAAC and gave it our all. We really grinded it out until the last day so I’m thrilled with the outcome.”
The team’s optimism has paid dividends for them this season as they have been able to place fairly well throughout the course of the year, especially when placing second both at the St. John’s Invitational on October 25 and at the Wagner Invitational on April 3.
The consistent success has also led O’Connor to win back-to-back MAAC Coach of the Year awards.
“It’s pretty cool. I’m very pleased. I’m not sure I’m the best coach or I deserve coach of the year, but I’m happy that somebody thinks that,” O’Connor said.
From a technical standpoint, the strong point that the Bobcats have been able to display this season is their dominant short game. They know that heading into the NCAA tournament, their short game is going to be the key to competing against the best in the nation.
“I think as a whole for our team that we worked a lot on short game this year,” Kemmling said. “I think that really gave us the edge over the competition when we were in Florida for the MAAC.”
Along with keeping their short game at a high level, the Bobcats are looking to master their putting before heading to Athens.
“Unfortunately in the Northeast we don’t get on the golf course that much in the spring, so putting is the key,” O’Connor said. “We’ll probably put from now until we’re ready to go.”
The Bobcats are looking to ride their momentum from the MAAC title into the NCAA tournament when they arrive in Athens to tee off for the three-round, regional showdown.
“I think we’re still on this high from winning conference in general and now being able to see how far we’re gonna go,” Ribbins said. “Everyone is so so excited.”