SHOAL CREEK, Ala. -- Junior Kacie Komoto is second after an even-par 72, pacing four Wildcats inside the Top-15, and No. 2 Northwestern (+8) leads the Shoal Creek NCAA Regional field by three strokes following Thursday's opening round.

Shoal Creek Club on Thursday presented the stiffest challenge Northwestern has faced this season, with the average Round 1 score more than six strokes above par (72) at 78.42. The Wildcats weathered the Jack Nicklaus design to the tune of a tournament-leading 59 pars through the first 18 holes. The 'Cats balanced attack ranked third in the field in scoring on Par-3's, and second on Par-4 and Par-5 holes.

"We came and we knew that we had to play our game," said head coach Emily Fletcher. "The Shoal Creek Course was going to play tough, you were really going to have to fight for every shot starting from day one. We talked about how they all count the same. You like to think that day three counts more than day one, or day two, but it doesn't. They all count the same. [It's] just knowing that a tough golf course is probably going to pack the field. There probably wouldn't be a lot of separation in the groups, and I think we just set out to play our very best and take care of business."

"It was a very good round," the Big Ten Coach of the Year continued. "I'm really proud of how our girls kept grinding. The wind was extremely difficult to judge all day."
 
Komoto played the back nine at 1-under en route to an even-par 72 to open the tournament. The Honolulu native is in second on the individual leaderboard, just two strokes off the pace.
 
Freshman Janet Mao bounced back from a difficult stretch of holes out of the turn on Thursday to card a 2-over 74, good for seventh after Day 1. The rookie is in the midst of her strongest run of play at the most important time of the season.
 
"Janet has played her way into our starting five, she hadn't necessarily been in that spot much of the year, but that's a benefit of having a lot of depth," Fletcher said prior to the Regional, following Mao's T12 finish at the 2016 Big Ten Championships.
 
Sophomore Hannah Kim finished among the Round 1 leaders with three birdies during a 3-over 75 round that puts her in the Top-15. Classmate Sarah Cho led the entire field, along with Mao, with 14 pars over the first 18 holes on the way to her own 3-over 75.
 
Northwestern’s journey to the 2016 NCAA Championships begins as the No. 2 seed at the Shoal Creek NCAA Regional, hosted by the University of Alabama.
 
The Wildcats are in search of their fourth straight berth in the NCAA Championships, following a program-best 10th-place result last season at Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Fla.
 
The Wildcats competition in the 18-team field includes four opponents currently ranked in the Top-20 of the Golfstat rankings, and eight more ranked in the Top-50. No. 1 seed Alabama (Ranked No. 1 in the nation), No. 3 Oklahoma State (9), No. 4 California (16) and No. 5 Iowa State (17) join No. 2 Northwestern (8) to make up the top five seeds at Shoal Creek.
 
The remainder of the lineup includes sixth-seeded Florida State (22); No. 7 Tennessee (25); No. 8 Missouri (32); No. 9 Purdue (36); No. 10 Notre Dame (40); No. 11 Vanderbilt (41); No. 12 Clemson (47); No. 13 Michigan (50); No. 14 Middle Tennessee State; No. 15 New Mexico State; No. 16 Eastern Kentucky; No. 17 Oakland (Mich.) and No. 18 Alabama State.
 
The Top-6 teams after 54 holes (and Top-3 individuals not on one of those teams) will advance to the 2016 NCAA Championships on May 20-25 at Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Ore.