MISSOULA — The Montana women’s golf team reaches the climax of its season this week when the Grizzlies compete at the Big Sky Conference Championship. The three-day tournament will be played at the Boulder Creek Golf Club in Boulder City, Nevada.
The championship will be contested over three days, with the league’s 12 teams playing 18 holes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
It caps off an eventful eight months for the program, from its former coach leaving for a new job in August to Kris Nord taking over on an interim basis during the fall season to Nord being named the permanent coach in January.
The team opened its spring season just two months ago and shoehorned three of its five pre-championship meets into a single (but lengthy) road trip to Arizona a few weeks back.
And all was done while the region was having less-than-ideal spring weather, keeping the team inside for a bulk of its practice time.
“The spring season really flew, between the competitions and the travel, and despite us being indoors a lot more than we planned to be,” said Nord. “But the team’s playing well. I’m excited to see how we perform.”
Long gone are the days when a team could shoot scores of 298, 305 and 301 and win a Big Sky championship, like Montana did in 2006.
Sacramento State, which carded scores of 279, 287 and 288 to win the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic two weeks ago, is ranked 61st in the nation and is this weekend’s favorite. But the Hornets will be challenged by Idaho and Portland State.
The Vandals, ranked 84th, tied Sacramento State last spring in Boulder City but lost in a playoff. Portland State, ranked 87th this week, finished third.
It’s that top three that everyone else will be trying to break into. The next six teams in the national rankings all sit between 134th (Northern Arizona) and 177th (Montana State).
Montana, which finished eighth at last year’s championship, is ranked 174th.
“It would be great to get into the last few tee times on Sunday. That would mean we’re in the top three or four going into the final round,” said Nord. “That would obviously be the goal, because the girls want to finish top three.
“Sac State is very solid. We have not seen Idaho this year, so they are a bit of a mystery, but Portland State is good, and NAU is good. To crack that foursome would be awesome for us.”
Montana is playing its best golf of the year. The Grizzlies shot scores below 310 in six of its final seven rounds on its three-tournament Arizona swing in late March and early April, highlighted by a closing score of 295 on April 3 at the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic.
“I don’t think we’ve slipped at all since we returned from Arizona,” said Nord. “I felt really good about our entire trip down there. I was happy with our scores at the courses we played. We improved.
“The difference for us this week will be if we can get a couple of kids with a hot putter, because I really like how we’re hitting the ball.”
Nord will take to Nevada his usual fivesome of seniors Hailey Hoagland and Kari Opatz, junior Baylee Barckley, sophomore Teigan Avery and freshman Faith D’Ortenzio.
Hoagland, a Butte High graduate, was Montana’s top scorer at all three of its tournaments in Arizona and is coming off the best performance of her collegiate career.
She shot rounds of 71, 72 and 72 at the Wyoming Cowgirl Classic to tie for fifth and, with a 215, match the second-best three-round score in program history.
That dropped her season average below 76, to 75.96. Only Barbora Bakova has recorded a better season average, posting a 75.52 in 2014-15.
“I’m pretty comfortable with my swing and my game at this point,” said Hoagland. “When I was younger, I would always get super nervous if my swing didn’t feel great going into a tournament or if I was having an issue with my putting stroke.
“I’ve learned to accept the game as it is and that that’s how it’s going to be. I just kind of work with and deal with what I have.”
Hoagland didn’t make Montana’s travel team to the Big Sky Championship as a freshman. She shot rounds of 80, 77 and 73 as a sophomore to place third on the team and tie for 37th overall, the first year the tournament was held at Boulder Creek.
Last spring, as a junior, Hoagland was second on the team behind Opatz. She opened with rounds of 76 and 78 before drifting down to 33rd in the standings after a final-day 86.
“My goal is obviously to win the tournament, but top five would be a great accomplishment,” said Hoagland.
“But I also want to have fun. I don’t want to ruin my last conference just because I don’t have a certain score or finish. I’m going to play my best and hope it’s the best three-round total of my college career and end on a good note.”
The course plays to nearly 6,400 yards, which makes it one of the longest tracks on Montana’s schedule this year, but it doesn’t favor long hitters like Hoagland, not like Ak-Chin Southern Dunes did two weeks ago.
Adding to the course’s challenge are the typical winds of the area, which can pick up as the day goes along or start off strong and die down, leaving golfers to adapt on the fly.
“You don’t have to be long on this course to score well,” said Hoagland. “That’s my strength, so it’s a little frustrating when you can’t hit driver off the tee.
“It’s more of a placement course. You may have to hit an iron off the tee and place yourself in the middle of the fairway to get a comfortable yardage to approach the green.”
Barckley, who was in contention at the Big Sky championship on this week’s course as a freshman — she shot rounds of 72, 73 and 72 to tie for fifth — has a season stroke average of 77.04. Opatz enters the championship at 78.74, Avery at 79.22 and D’Ortenzio at 81.67.
Barckley and Avery are both surging. Barckley has shot seven consecutive rounds of 78 or better, Avery has carded seven straight rounds of 77 or better.
It will take all that and more this weekend for the Grizzlies to shoot their way into the upper third of the field.
“We’re capable of breaking into the top four,” said Hoagland. “We just have to have all four players shooting consistently in the low 70s. With so many good teams, one little mess up with your fourth score and you can be out of contention.”
— Montana Sports Information