Before looking ahead to a new season recently, Todd Oehrlein paused to reflect on how his job as the University of Wisconsin women's golf coach is different this fall than it was a year ago at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
2021-22 University of Wisconsin women's golf team
|Carly Carter||Fr.||Eagle, Idaho||2021, 2020, 2018 Idaho Junior Amateur champion|
|Chloe Chan||Fr.||Hong Kong||2020 Hong Kong Junior Close champion; 2021 runner-up|
|Nicole Ciskowski||Jr.||Barrington, Ill.||Has not played an event for UW since 2019-20 season|
|Gia Feliciano||So.||Concord, Calif.||Reached Round of 32 at 2019 U.S. Girls Junior at SentryWorld in Stevens Point|
|Mackenzie Hahn||Sr.||Spring Grove, Ill.||2020 BMI Brown Deer Women's Amateur champion; finished 3rd in 2021|
|Vanessa Ho||Fr.||San Diego, Calif.||2021 U.S. Women's Amateur qualifier|
|Camille Kuznik||Fr.||Orono, Minn.||Two-time Minn. Golf Association Junior champion|
|Emily Lauterbach||Jr.||Hartland, Wis.||2021 Wis. State Women's Amateur runner-up; 2020 Wis. State Women's Open champion|
|Tracy Lee||Sr.||Seoul, South Korea||2021 U.S. Women's Amateur qualifier|
Now in his 18th season, Oehrlein was less concerned about how his life has changed and more concerned about how it is different for the golfers on the UW roster.
"You have to have a heightened awareness of the challenges that your players are facing," Oehrlein said. "Their experience is different than what it was in the past and different from what they have envisioned. ... What I tried to do is I tried last year and into this year, I tried to provide as many competitive experiences and tried to keep the workings of our program as normal as possible."
This fall marks the first time since 2019 that his golfers have arrived on campus with hope of a normal college golf season. The Badgers saw their 2019-20 season cut short once COVID-19 shut down much of the country — college sports included — and didn't see it return until the back half of the 2020-21 school year when UW was able to squeeze in five events leading up to the Big Ten Conference Championship in late April where the Badgers finished eighth out of 13 teams.
Through it all, Oehrlein said, he tried to provide as many competitive opportunities as possible while his team was confined to campus and ordered to stay in its own bubble. Most of them, he said, resembled traditional qualifying rounds on the team's home course at University Ridge in Madison — a far cry from normal, but pointed in a direction that would serve the team well once normal started to come back into focus.
Oehrlein isn't sure college golf is there quite yet, but — for the nine golfers in his program (four of them freshmen) — he hopes there is a taste of it Monday when the Badgers open their 2021-22 season at the Cougar Classic in Charleston, S.C.
The Badgers haven't competed in the event since 2016, when it was in the middle of the fall schedule. The 16 teams in the 2021-22 opener will feature five ranked in the top 25 and 10 ranked in the top 50 of the GolfStat NCAA Division I national rankings, giving Oehrlein a golden opportunity to measure the promise he saw in his No. 88 Badgers during qualifying rounds last week against arguably the toughest field they'll see all season.
"There is a lot of energy and a lot of excitement," said Oehrlein, who also has a new assistant coach for the first time since 2015 in Kristen Simpson. "I know, as coaches, we feel that and the players feel it. The first week or week-and-a-half of practice has been really competitive. A lot of focus. A lot of positive energy around practice.
"The qualifying process was also very competitive with a lot of low scores, which is always a really positive sign. Heck, our first qualifier of the year we had five red numbers out there. It's not bad when you're throwing out a 71."
When the qualifying dust settled, Oehrlein found himself with experience at the Nos. 1, 3 and 5 positions with Emily Lauterbach, Tracy Lee and Mackenzie Hahn, respectively. In between, Vanessa Ho, a freshman from San Diego and Chloe Chan, a freshman from Hong Kong, will make their Badgers debut at the Nos. 2 and 4 spots, respectively.
Lauterbach, a former WIAA state champion from Hartland Arrowhead, begins her junior season at UW coming off a strong summer. She fell to former Badgers teammate Bobbi Stricker, one of four golfers who finished their UW careers in May, in a playoff at the Wisconsin State Women's Amateur in July and then filled a gap in her schedule by competing in first stage of LPGA/Symetra Tour Qualifying last month in Rancho Mirage, Calif., shooting 75-74-76 and missing the 54-hole cut by just six strokes.
"Emily played fantastic (in qualifying); she shot 67-70-73 and the 70 she shot in Round 2 was in 30 mph winds at (University) Ridge and I thought par that day was about 75," said Oehrlein, who believes Lauterbach getting a taste of LPGA/Symetra Tour Q-School with two years of eligibility remaining speaks to the determination his five returning have shown trying to improve on last spring's eighth-place showing at the Big Ten Conference Championship.
"From a returning side of thing, I really started to see that turn at the end of last spring. We started to put up some really low numbers. We had some low rounds at the Big Ten Championship and at Indiana, we started to break through a little bit. But I was seeing it in qualifying, too, which we hadn't seen the previous fall. ... A couple of the younger players played their way (into the lineup), but our seniors stepped up and rose to the occasion."
After opening the season in South Carolina, UW will return home to University Ridge for the Badger Invitational. The 54-hole event is Sept. 19-21 and will give all nine golfers on the roster the chance to prove to Oehrlein that the positive signs he is seeing in practice — "I've been thrilled with the work habits and preparation of all nine," the coach said — are an indicator of what's to come.
"That was intentional; I want to have that opportunity to see everybody play early and then we'll have a couple more weekends before our next event so those will be more opportunities to qualify and (develop) that competitiveness," Oehrlein said. "At that time, people will have had a lot of opportunities to post numbers and prove that they're ready to play."