Junior Haley Thiele is expected to be a leader for the Huskers on and off the course in 2018-19.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Huskers Aim for Right Mix in 2018-19

By NU Athletic Communications

A young Nebraska women’s golf team that does not feature a senior on its roster will look for the right mix of youth and experience to propel the Huskers to postseason play in 2018-19.

“I’m extremely excited for the season,” Nebraska Coach Robin Krapfl said. “We have a great blend of experience and young talent, and it is without a doubt our longest hitting team. The potential is there to field a team of at least four players with above average length, plus a team of players who are capable of playing under par.”

Nebraska’s potential for success in 2018-19 starts with Kate Smith. The junior from Detroit Lakes, Minn., set the Husker season record with her 73.66 stroke average as a sophomore in 2017-18. It followed a freshman season when she set the previous Husker record with a 73.90 stroke average.

Last season, Smith led the Huskers with her tie for 19th individually at the Big Ten Championships, but she just missed her second straight bid as an individual to the NCAA Regional Championships. A three-time Big Ten Golfer-of-the-Week with nine individual top-10 tournament finishes in her first two seasons at Nebraska, Smith is also hungry for her first career collegiate tournament victory.

“It is only a matter of time before Kate wins a college tournament,” Krapfl said. “She has the innate talent it takes to compete at the highest level. As her game has matured her low scores and her consistency have really improved. She is our rock and someone we will count on to help lead us to the postseason.”

While Smith is poised to lead the Huskers, fellow junior Haley Thiele is ready to reclaim the form that led her to one of the top junior golf careers and freshman seasons in Nebraska history.

As a sophomore in 2017-18, Thiele battled the lingering effects of a wrist injury that forced her to redshirt in 2016-17. As a true freshman in 2015-16, Thiele produced one of the best freshman seasons in Husker history with a then-record 75.63 stroke average that included a then-freshman record 67 at the UNLV Collegiate Showdown.

A two-time WGCA Scholastic All-American, Thiele battled her way to a 78.85 stroke average last season, but has regained health and confidence during the offseason. She also has made adjustments to her swing that could help propel her to new heights in her fourth year in the Husker program.

“I am so proud of Haley. She made a very hard decision to try another swing coach, and then put the work in it takes to make changes,” Krapfl said. “If there was a picture for hard work it would be Haley. She deserves every success she has because she has put in the time to be great.”

While Smith and Thiele will be looked to for leadership on and off the course at the top of the Husker lineup, fellow junior Jessica Haraden could battle to step into a greater role this season. The third-year competitor from Thousand Oaks, Calif., played in 18 rounds for the Huskers as a sophomore and produced a 78.06 stroke average. Haraden carries a calm and humble approach to her game that has allowed her to trim her stroke average and could have her poised for greater gains in 2018-19.

“Jess is one of those players that just kind of does her own thing and no single part of her game really stands out. She is just solid at everything,” Krapfl said. “She has steadily gotten better and will be right in the hunt to help this team accomplish our goals.”

Another Californian, Noor Ahmed will be looked to for consistent scores in the heart of the Husker lineup. The sophomore from Folsom, Calif., improved throughout her freshman season while competing in all 29 rounds for the Big Red. Her 76.45 stroke average ranked fourth among the Huskers, but she was Nebraska’s No. 2 finisher at the 2018 Big Ten Championships when she tied for 40th.

“Noor was a pleasant surprise last season. You never know how freshmen will handle that first collegiate season, but she was awesome,” Krapfl said. “She possesses a maturity in her personality and game that really helps those around her. She definitely has the ability to step up her game to another level and have a solid season.”

While those four returning golfers expect to be in the mix for lineup spots throughout the season, Nebraska’s other sophomore, Hannah Thiele, could be a wildcard to the Huskers’ success. Thiele battled a back injury throughout her freshman season to compete in 22 rounds, but struggled with her strength and consistency. She got off to a solid start to the summer of 2018 before suffering a setback, which could affect her ability to contribute during the season.

“So much depends on how her back holds up, and whether she can regain the confidence and distance she had before the injury,” Krapfl said. “She was making great progress in both areas before a setback this summer. We are not going to rush things, but we also know what she is capable of doing when she is on top of her game.”

Nebraska’s five returning contributors from 2017-18 will be joined by five freshmen hoping to compete in their first collegiate rounds in 2018-19. Redshirt freshmen Kirsten Baete (Beatrice, Neb.) and Brooke Newell (Anita, Iowa) used their first years at Nebraska to expand their games and hone their skills, and both could be ready to make impacts this season.

“Kirsten is coming off a redshirt season where she made big strides in her game,” Krapfl said. “It will be exciting to see what she can accomplish. She has the length to really put herself in great scoring situations. The next step is staying committed and confident under par. She can really help us this year when she starts seeing herself as the great talent we think she is.”

While Baete’s strength is off the tee, Newell’s greatest assets are in her short game.

“Brooke has a wonderful short game with an excellent touch around the greens that is among the best on our team,” Krapfl said. “Her long game continues to improve, and she could be right in the mix for a spot in the starting lineup.”

The Husker hopes will be bolstered by three true freshmen who are looking to make contributions in 2018-19. Vanessa Bouvet brings an extensive international background to the Big Red. Bouvet, who currently lists her home as Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, has lived and competed internationally in Syria, Venezuela, New Zealand and in the United States, making her home as a youngster in Houston, Texas. She has also competed in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Belgium, and in the World Amateur Golf Rankings her home country is listed as France.

“Vanessa is a power player with the length to be comfortable on any golf course,” Krapfl said. “We also expect her to be an outstanding student and teammate who will have a chance to come in and compete for a spot in our lineup as a freshman. Her experience in growing up and playing golf around the world will be an added benefit to our entire team.”

NCAA rules have prevented Bouvet from actively competing for the past nine months, so she is hungry to get back on the course and compete.

While Bouvet brings an international flavor to the roster, fellow freshman Megan Whittaker carries undeniable Cornhusker connections. Whittaker is one of the most accomplished Nebraska high school golfers in recent memory. A two-time Class A state individual champion at Elkhorn South, Whittaker won 35 individual championships during her high school career. She also helped Elkhorn South to four consecutive Class A state team titles. In addition to her impressive high school credentials, Whittaker kept winning in state and national competitions. She was the 2016 Nebraska Girls State Match Play champion and claimed the individual title at the 2016 NJGT Tour Championship. She was also a national finalist in the 2016 National Drive, Chip and Putt competition.

Whittaker’s ties to Nebraska women’s golf are very strong, as her mother Kim (Lefler) lettered as a golfer for Krapfl from 1991 to 1994, helping the Huskers advance to the 1994 NCAA West Regional as a senior.

“Megan has the ability to shoot low numbers and she knows how to win,” Krapfl said. “She is a quality teammate and a strong student. She is also a very cerebral player, a great ball striker and has a solid overall game. Megan has the talent to be in our lineup as a freshman and the potential for a great career at Nebraska. I am excited to see her compete with and learn from our upperclassmen.”

Nicole Hansen rounds out the Husker freshman class. The walk-on from Illinois earned a high-level academic scholarship to Nebraska and brings an impressive list of credentials as an all-around athlete. A three-time Illinois Division 2A High School Championship qualifier at Lake Park High School, Hansen began to focus her attention to golf late in her high school career after also competing in pole vault and hurdles as a freshman and sophomore.  Hansen, who carried a 5.0 GPA in high school, earned a Ruth Leverton academic scholarship to attend Nebraska.

“We are excited about Nicole’s potential. She is a great athlete with the strength to generate a lot of clubhead speed,” Krapfl said. “She has been working with some outstanding golf professionals to prepare herself for college golf. It will be fun to see how quickly she can develop now that her athletic focus is just on golf.”

While the Huskers could put five newcomers on the course, Nebraska also has a newcomer in Associate Head Coach Kolton Lapa in 2018-19. The first full-time assistant coach in Nebraska women’s golf history, Lapa began his collegiate career as a member of the Husker men’s golf team. The young, energetic Lapa got his collegiate coaching career off to an outstanding start in two seasons at Denver, where he helped the Pioneers to a pair of NCAA Regional appearances and the 2017 Summit League Championship. In his two years at Denver, he helped Pioneers capture seven individual Summit League Conference honors.

“I’m extremely excited to add Kolton Lapa as our first full-time assistant coach for the women’s golf program,” Krapfl said. “Kolton is an outstanding recruiter, great at building relationships, and is a very good on-course coach. Kolton’s positive and enthusiastic attitude and his skill set will be key components of moving our team forward and getting Nebraska back where it belongs. I believe he is on the fast track to being one of the great coaches in our profession, and I look forward to him coaching at Nebraska.”

The Huskers face another strong schedule in 2018-19, beginning with the Ptarmigan Ram Fall Classic in Fort Collins, Colo., Sept. 17-19. Nebraska continues play in Colorado the following week at the Golfweek Conference Challenge in Vail, Colo., Sept. 24-26, before wrapping up a three-tournament Colorado road trip at the Ron Moore Invitational in Highlands Ranch, Colo., Oct. 5-7. The Huskers head to the UNLV Collegiate Showdown in Boulder City, Nev., Oct. 21-23, before concluding the fall campaign with a visit to the Rainbow Wahine Invitational in Kapolei, Hawaii, Oct. 29-31.

The Big Red open the spring portion of their campaign at the Lady Puerto Rico Classic in Rio Grande, P.R., Feb. 10-12, before heading to the Westbrook Spring Invitational in Peoria, Ariz., Feb. 24-25. The Huskers return to Arizona for the Clover Cup in Mesa, Ariz., March 15-17, before closing the regular season at the Lady Buckeye Spring Invitational in Columbus, Ohio, April 13-14. Nebraska returns to Maineville, Ohio, to compete at the Big Ten Championships, April 19-21, 2019.

The Huskers will compete for the conference crown on the Arnold Palmer-designed Tournament Players Club River’s Bend Course, which will serve as the host to the conference tournament for the third straight season.  NCAA Regional competitions will be held in Auburn, Ala., Cle Elum, Wash., East Lansing, Mich., and Norman, Okla., May 6-8, before the NCAA Championships are held at The Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., May 17-22.

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