BROWNS SUMMIT, N.C. -- The ninth-ranked Lady Volunteer golf team is headed back to the NCAA Championships for an unprecedented third consecutive year after winning the NCAA East Regional in dominating fashion on Saturday. Tennessee was led by tournament medalist Marci Turner, who equaled the lowest 54-hole total in school history with a mind-boggling seven-under-par 209.
It marks the second straight season the Big Orange have emerged triumphantly from regional play. The Lady Vols, who shared the team title with UCLA last year at the NCAA West Regional, finished the tournament with the second-lowest score in program history, 864, on the way to their third victory of the campaign. Of the 20 teams UT beat, seven were ranked in the most-recent Golfweek top-25 poll.
The Orange and White had entered the final round trailing LSU by two strokes but quickly surged to the top of the leaderboard. The Lady Vols were the epitome of poise during the pressure-packed 18 holes, carding a two-under-par 286. That credit goes toward 2006 Southeastern Conference Women's Golf Coach of the Year, Judi Pavon, who has been the mastermind behind Tennessee establishing itself as an elite program.
'I'm so proud of the team and the way we played today,' Pavon said. 'I don't think we've ever had a better tournament. Every player played a large part in this win. We are excited about advancing to the NCAA Championship at Ohio State. I'm happy for Marci (Turner) for picking up a huge individual win this week. She is really playing awesome.'
Turner, the sophomore sensation from Tompkinsville, Ky., continued to play at unconscious levels on Saturday. Turner made it look easy during the final round, as she made 15 pars along with three birdies. She was in attack mode early, drilling those aforementioned birdie putts at Nos. 3, 6 and 9.
On the back nine, Turner put it into cruise control with nine straight pars. The seemingly effortless performance lifted her third crown on the year, which is the most single-season victories by a UT golfer in program history. She now stands alongside teammate Violeta Retamoza (Aguascalientes, Mexico) as the only individuals to top the field at three events.
Turner made par or better at 49/54 (91 %) of the holes during the three-day tournament. Overall, she finished with 37 pars, 12 birdies and just five bogeys.
Golda Johansson (Lund, Sweden) was outstanding as well for Team Orange. On the front nine, Johansson offset a pair of bogeys with two birdies to make the turn for the back nine at even par.
It would be a memorable performance, as Johansson carved up the course. She buried back-to-back birdie putts at Nos. 11 and 12 to get to two under. That was followed by three straight pars, before Johansson cashed in on another birdie at the par-four 16th. She topped off the round with two more pars and signed her scorecard with a dazzling three-below par 69.
That figure, a season best for Johansson, equals the second-best round by a Lady Vol at regionals. Her tournament total of 217, mirrors her second-best effort in four years at Rocky Top, in addition to matching the second-lowest score by an orange-clad player in 14 years of regional competition. She finished in a 12th-place tie.
Retamoza turned in an uplifting performance for the orange-clad faithful. The senior played splendidly, picking the perfect time to card her best round on the year. Retamoza had a deceiving start to the round, as she bogeyed the first hole. She strung together six successive holes of par or better, including birdies at Nos. 3, 5 and 6.
A troublesome patch followed, however, as bogeys pestered Retamoza at Nos. 8 and 12. From that point on, though, Retamoza was in total control. Back-to-back pars were accented by birdies at Nos. 15 and 17. She drilled another par putt at No. 18 to enter the clubhouse with a sparkling two-under-par 70.
By matching the second-lowest closing round by an orange-clad golfer at Regionals, Retamoza improved her score for the third day in a row and caps off the event with sum of 221. She earned a 25th-place tie, a vast improvement from 55th to start the day.
Nicole Smith (Riverside, Calif.), whose marvelous play the first two rounds put Tennessee in contention for the regional crown, came back to the pack a bit on Saturday. The freshman's chances of a fifth consecutive top-10 outcome were hurt by a challenging start to the round. She stood at six over after a double bogey at No. 6, but as his been the case recently, displayed a maturity beyond her years.
Smith played even-par golf the final 12 holes, erasing two bogeys with a pair of birdies. She wrapped up the round with a score of 78. Smith's three-day total of 221 is the lowest ever by a UT rookie at regionals. Smith joined Retamoza in a tie for 25th.
Holly Cantwell (Morristown, Tenn.), had a taxing day, but she can leave the course with her head held high. The junior played stellar golf the first two days of the tournament, counting toward the team total in both rounds.
On Saturday, Cantwell had a demanding start, as she stood at four-over par after a double bogey at No. 7. She settled down nicely, however, registering nine pars during the final 11 holes. She finished the round with a tally of 78, to wrap up the tournament with a sum of 225. Cantwell finished tied for 44th.
The Lady Vols now will have a little more than two weeks to prepare for the NCAA Championships, slated from May 23-26 in Columbus, Ohio.