Women's Golf continues magical ride to first Big Sky title
By JORDAN FREEMYER and SCOTT WARD
CHANDLER, Ariz. -- Northern Colorado Women's Golf entered this week's Big Sky Conference Championship as the fifth pick in the league's preseason standings but proved those prognostications wrong on Tuesday at Ocotillo Golf Resort.
The Bears stared down that poll and, led by the Silvers sisters, walked away from Ocotillo with a pair of trophies after capturing their first Big Sky team title and their second individual crown.
Northern Colorado Athletics claimed its eighth Big Sky Conference team championship in the past three years, and head coach Brandon White's program earned the Big Sky's automatic berth into this year's NCAA Tournament and will compete in next month's NCAA West Regional (May 10-12) at Colorado National Golf Club in Erie.
The Bears finished the championship in 880 strokes (+16) Tuesday -- tying a league championship record and obliterating its own 54-hole school record (908) -- and earned a two-shot victory over preseason-favorite Sacramento State (882, +18)
Junior Carleigh Silvers won the individual title -- joining senior teammate Ali Nelson, who did the same in 2009 -- with a three-day score of 213 (-3). She edged two golfers, including her sister Chelsea, by shooting a 3-under 69 with a sizzling five-under 31 on the back nine that featured birdies on holes 10, 12, 14, 16 and 17.
Chelsea Silvers, a senior, shot a 1-under 71 in the final round to finish tied for second with an overall score of 214 (-2). Only her bogey on the par-5 18th prevented an all-Silvers playoff for the 2012 individual title.
"It was close all day with Sacramento State," White said. "Everybody did a really good job today. It was a five-person effort, and we really needed everybody this week, and [everybody] did a great job. It's an exciting feeling.
"The girls played their hearts out. They did a great job of staying focused and not looking ahead or behind. This is just an awesome, awesome feeling, [and it's] pretty cool that we get to stay close to home for the first regional we ever get to play in."
The Bears started the Championship strong on Sunday with a school-record team score of 290 (+2) but gave a few shots back yesterday and entered today's final round two strokes behind the Hornets (589 to 587) in second place.
The Silvers sisters, who posted the second and third best individual scores in tournament history, led Northern Colorado's comeback and set the stage for the dramatic finish.
Remarkably, Northern Colorado rewrote its own and the Big Sky's record books this week on the same course where just two weeks ago they totaled 933 strokes (+69) over 54 holes at the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic.
"We're really excited about the win," Carleigh Silvers said. "This is something that we've worked for all year, and all of that work has finally paid off.
"We were all really excited and a little nervous going into today's round, but we knew we could do it, and it came down to the last few holes, and we pulled it off."
"We always knew we had it in us," Chelsea Silvers said. "We have never been able to all come together at once. I know the seniors really wanted this. This was our last year and our last chance. We knew we had it in us. It was a really exciting three days."
Northern Colorado trailed Sacramento State by two strokes at the start of play Tuesday but, after early birdies from Chelsea Silvers, Nelson and Hannah McNeley, the two teams went back and forth all day on the top of the leaderboard.
Sacramento State led by as many as five strokes at one point but the battled back, thanks in large part to the back-nine efforts of Carleigh Silvers and junior Libby Avery, who shot a 36 and finished with a final-round 74 (+2).
Avery's third-round performance brought her tournament score to 229 (+13), which put her in a tie for 18th. Nelson also tied for 18th after shooting a 5-over 77 Tuesday, and junior Hannah McNeley ended a shot behind, at 230 (+14) for the tournament and tied for 21st after her 5-over 77 in the final round.
"I think some of our nerves got the best of us there on [No.] 18," White said. "We stumbled a little there on that last hole, but, thankfully, the other holes on the back nine coming in gave us a little cushion."
If not for Carleigh Silvers' incredible back nine, it might've been Sacramento State hoisting the championship Tuesday. The Hornets put together a solid three-day tournament but fell just short.
After signing her scorecard Carleigh Silvers raced to the 18th hole to see if Chelsea could par and force a playoff.
"This is very special," Chelsea Silvers said. "We won state my senior year of high school (in Martinsville, Ind.), and that was really big. I didn't think it would happen again, but it did. I'm really happy and excited for Carleigh. She's pushed me. Without her, I wouldn't be here right now."
The Big Sky Conference's Jon Kasper contributed to this story.