Senior leadership, more experience and greater depth in competition both in practice and tournaments are expected to help the Nebraska women’s golf team climb the ladder in the Big Ten Conference in 2013-14.
Last season, Nebraska’s nine-player roster lacked both seniors and sophomores. This season, two extremely experienced seniors and four sophomores with solid experience of their own will make up the nucleus of the Husker lineup.
"We were probably the youngest team I have ever coached last year," Nebraska Coach Robin Krapfl said. "We didn’t graduate anybody this year, so having six players with lineup experience is definitely going to help us a lot this year."
Nebraska’s more experienced 2013-14 team starts with seniors Steffi Neisen and Katelyn Wright. Neisen enters her fourth full season in NU’s lineup with 96 rounds of experience. The three-time WGCA Scholastic All-American has played in a trio of conference tournaments and is a two-time Big Ten Sportsmanship Award winner.
After producing two of the top five freshman and sophomore stroke averages in school history, Neisen struggled at times as a junior. However, her career 77.58 stroke average ranks among the top 10 players in Husker history.
"It is hard to believe Steffi is a senior already. I’m excited to see how she closes out her career," Krapfl said. "She has the all-around skills to have a great year. It is great when your senior leaders really stay committed to getting better and have the desire to do everything they can to lead the team to a successful year."
Wright led the Huskers with a 77.39 stroke average as a junior. The Incline Village, Nev., native has played 89 competitive rounds as a Husker in her career and owns a 78.86 average. She played the best golf of her career last fall, when she notched a 75.13 average through 15 fall rounds, including a pair of top-five tournament finishes and a Big Ten Golfer-of-the-Week award on Oct. 11.
Wright battled health issues during the spring portion of her junior season but still represented the Huskers for the second time at the Big Ten Tournament.
"Katelyn has put herself in position to have an outstanding senior season," Krapfl said. "It starts with hard work for Katelyn, whether it is on the course, in workouts or any other area that can help her become a better player. Katelyn has taken charge and put in the hours. It is pretty exciting to see her grow as a person and a leader."
Without the benefit of having any juniors on this year’s roster, the leadership load for the Huskers will again fall on Wright and Neisen. However, a sophomore class that includes third-year returners Morgan Smejkal and Cassidy Stelzmiller will be much more prepared for the grind of the collegiate season than last year’s team.
Add to the mix true sophomores Cassie Deeg and Hannah Luebke - Nebraska’s top two finishers at the 2013 Big Ten Tournament - and the Huskers enter the season with not only more experience, but also more talent and depth than a year ago.
Stelzmiller earned WGCA Scholastic All-America and Big Ten Distinguished Scholar awards last season, while finishing in a tie for 50th at the Big Ten Tournament. The Placerville, Calif., native managed an 81.64 stroke average.
"Cassidy was probably our most improved player last year, and we look for that to just continue," Krapfl said. "She probably possesses the best short game on the team, and has good length, too. Cassidy has a very bright future, if she continues to work hard."
Smejkal could be another one of NU’s most improved golfers this year. The Columbus, Neb., native carried her improvement through the summer of 2013, when she captured the Nebraska State Women’s Match Play championship. Smejkal finished with an 81.56 stroke average through 25 rounds as a redshirt freshman.
"Morgan gained some valuable playing time last season and really made a huge jump in her game over the summer," Krapfl said. "She has an excellent work ethic and is a sponge for knowledge of things that will grow her game. I look to Morgan to be one of our most improved players this year, as she begins to trust and is able to play without thinking so much."
Deeg was arguably Nebraska’s steadiest player in 2012-13. The true freshman from Hugo, Minn., produced NU’s No. 2 stroke average (77.71), which ranked among the top rookie seasons in school history. She also led the Huskers with her tie for 32nd at the Big Ten Tournament. Deeg recorded a trio of top-20 finishes during the fall, including a career-best 10th-place effort at the Missouri State/Payne Stewart Memorial. She added Nebraska’s best individual round of the season with a 69 in the first round of the Golfweek Conference Challenge in the second tournament of her career.
"Cassie is due to have a huge breakout," Krapfl said. "She has a very high golf IQ and the overall skills to be a great player. I love her attitude, desire and personality. It will be exciting to see how much she improves this year as her comfort level rises."
Luebke emerged late in her true freshman campaign after battling a back injury in the fall season. The native of Germnay earned a lineup spot in NU’s final two tournaments of the season, finishing in a tie for 38th at the Big Ten Tournament.
"Hannah got off to a slow start last season, as she battled illness while adjusting to a different culture," Krapfl said. "She started to make big strides toward the end of the season. Hannah has tremendous upside. It will be exciting to watch her grow and develop. With her extreme length, she has the potential to dominate courses once the rest of her game matures.
"Last year we only had two players who had ever played a collegiate round. This year, we head into the year with two seniors with some high caliber experience and four other players who have a year of real lineup experience under their belts. We think that is going to make a major difference for us."
In addition to the six golfers with lineup experience, Nebraska returns a pair of redshirt freshmen in Abbie Hunke and Yoorim Kang. Both golfers hope to push the six returning players for lineup positions throughout the season.
The only new golfer on the Husker roster is Jordan Chael. The true freshman from Overland Park, Kan., brings impressive credentials and a ton of talent to the roster.
Chael was the Kansas Class 5A state champion in the fall of 2012, while leading St. Thomas Aquinas to its third consecutive team title. She was ranked as the No. 58 player nationally in the Class of 2013 by Golfweek.
"Even though we didn’t graduate any players from last year’s team, I anticipate Jordan having an immediate impact," Krapfl said. "She is a highly competitive person with a high level of tournament experience and success. She is definitely going to make our team better and our competition better within our team."
While Nebraska’s team will be significantly more experienced than last year’s team, it will still be relatively young by Big Ten Conference standards. Last season, the Huskers finished 11th in a deep and talented Big Ten, a season after finishing sixth in their first year of Big Ten competition.
"We feel a lot better about our talent, ability, experience and our team than we did at this time last year, so we’re excited about the progress we’ve made," Krapfl said. "We expect better results on the course, and we will be challenged by another great schedule."
The Huskers open the season with the annual Chip-N Club Invitational in Lincoln, Sept. 9-10. The tournament returns to Wilderness Ridge Golf Course after being held at the Country Club of Lincoln the past two seasons.
The Huskers hit the road for the first time when they travel to the Minnesota Invitational in Minneapolis, Sept. 16-17.
The following week, Nebraska returns to a familiar tournament with the Marilynn Smith/Sunflower Invitational in Manhattan, Kan. It will be the Huskers’ first trip to Kansas State as a Big Ten Conference school.
After making the short drive to Manhattan, the Huskers will take nearly a month off from competition to focus on individual improvement while preparing for the Hoosier Fall Invitational, Oct. 19-20. NU will wrap up the fall portion of its campaign the following week by traveling to the Las Vegas Collegiate Showdown, Oct. 27-29.
The spring schedule tees off with the Westbrook Invitational in Peoria, Aria., Feb. 23-24. It will be the first of three straight trips to Arizona to open the spring campaign, including the Clover Cup in Mesa, March 14-16. Two weeks later, the Huskers make a return trip to Tucson, Ariz., for the Mountain View Collegiate, March 28-29.
Spring season action will begin to heat up with a road trip to Texas for the SMU/Dallas Athletic Club Invitational, April 4-6. The Huskers will get an early look at some of the Big Ten Tournament field when they travel to the Ohio State Spring Invitational, April 19-20.
The 2013-14 regular season concludes with the Big Ten Tournament at the Donald Ross Course at the French Lick Resort in Indiana. It will mark the third consecutive season that the Huskers have competed at the Big Ten Tournament on the Ross Course.
Nebraska will be hoping that more experience and a more talented and deeper lineup will put them in position to contend for their 12th NCAA Regional bid since 1994.
NCAA Regional competitions will be held in Stillwater, Okla. (Central), Cle Elum, Wash. (West) and Tallahassee, Fla. (East) May 8-10, before Tulsa, Okla., plays host to the NCAA Championships, May 20-23.
"I’m excited to see the growth and development of our team this year," Krapfl said. "We know with the schedule we face, nothing is going to be given to us. We are going to have to go out and earn it by working hard and believing in each other. We are certainly looking forward to see what we can accomplish this season."