May 14, 2010

By Tom Carkeek, Special to

MESA, Ariz. -- On a leaderboard dotted with familiar powerhouses like Nova Southeastern, Rollins, Florida Southern and Tarleton State, Sonoma State might look strangely out of place.

But don't tell that to Val Verhunce, in his second as season as coach of the school in Rohnert Park, Calif.

The Seawolves are in the NCAA Division II Women's Golf Championships for the first time, and they're acquitting themselves admirably.

Through three rounds, they sit in fifth place, but they're just nine strokes out of second.

"It's real satisfying to have done what we've done," Verhunce said. "We have a special group of women. They're not winning so much on talent as much as on mental toughness.

"They're very driven and supportive of one another off the course as well as on it. That chemistry allows them to play well as a unit."

The Seawolves are led by freshman Spencer Heller, who is 13 over and tied for seventh in the individual standings after her 2-over-par 73 Friday.

"As a freshman, Spencer has had an outstanding year," Verhunce said. "She has done real well as a leader of the team. She's been our anchor all season."

No matter where Sonoma State ends up, Verhunce is planning to enjoy it.

"Our success is not measurable by how we score but by going out and playing our best and having no regrets," he said. "We've proved to ourselves and others what we can do."

DOUBLE SHOT: Among the 72 players in the tournament, 60 compete as members of teams, and 12 qualified as individuals. That dozen represents 11 schools. The only institution with two qualifiers is renowned golf titan Upper Iowa.

Say what?

Actually, it's true. This is the fifth year the Peacocks, from Fayette, Iowa, have had individuals or a team in the Division II nationals. They finished eighth as a team last season.

"We're very fortunate to have kids who can play so well," coach Chad Markuson said. "We transitioned from Division III in 2004, and the administration placed an emphasis on golf and committed to all sports."

Upper Iowa has junior Jill Preeshl and sophomore McKenzie Holthaus competing.

Both are back in the pack, with Holthaus tied for 33rd and Central super regional medalist Preeshl tied for 48th.

Both young women attended high school in the small town of Onalaska, Wis., about 100 miles northeast of Upper Iowa. Yet remarkably, they went to different schools. Preeshl graduated from Holmen and Holthaus from Onalaska.

"They were family friends as kids," Markuson said. "They competed against each other a lot in high school."

The Arizona desert is a major change for golfers from Iowa.

"It's a very different environment for us," Markuson said. "It's all about the greens and getting it to stop. That's what has caused us most of our problems."

DUAL THREAT: Sandra Changkija of Nova Southeastern (Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Fla.) has a chance to come away with two championships.

She's the leader of the Sharks, who have virtually clinched the team title. And she's second in the individual race to Maria Luz Besio of Newberry (S.C.).

Changkija is 1-under for the tournament and four strokes behind Besio. She looked like she might fall out of the race, going 3-over through her first six holes Friday. But she rallied nicely with birdies on three par-4s - at Nos. 8, 13 and 14 - to end the day at even par.

A FAST FINISH: Defending champion Lyndsay McBride of Indianapolis just hasn't been able to get much going, though she did improve from a tie for 26th to a tie for 16th after three rounds.

And she didn't make it easy on herself.

McBride was struggling at 9-over-par through 13 holes, but she rallied splendidly with four birdies over her last four holes to shoot a 76.

She's 19-over for the tournament.

WHITEWASHED: For the first time all week, a round passed with no golfer recording an eagle Friday.