In July of 2007, Brad James was named Director of Golf at the University of Minnesota, adding responsibility for the Golden Gophers women’s program to his duties as head coach of the men’s team. And if the results he achieved in turning Minnesota into a national men’s golf power are any indication of his program-building abilities, the Gophers women’s team may be on the cusp of something very special.
In his six years at the helm of the Minnesota men’s program, James led the Gophers to previously unimagined heights, including the 2002 NCAA Championship. All told, James coached the Minnesota men’s team to three top-10 national finishes, three Big Ten titles and six straight NCAA Regional berths from 2002-07.
And James, with the assistance of Associate Head Coach Kris Wessinger, intends to produce the same kind of results with the Gopher women.
A meticulously detailed strategist when it comes to directing college golf programs, James has just begun to put his plan in place to help put the Minnesota women’s program on the path to prominence. He also understands that it will take some time to realize his vision.
Minnesota has not registered an upper half finish at the Big Ten Tournament since the Golden Gophers made their last NCAA Regional appearance during the 2000-01 campaign. Add in the fact that most of the team’s top talent is very young Minnesota boasts four freshmen and a sophomore among its top nine players and it’s easy to understand why one of James’ primary goals will be to first develop the Gophers in to a consistently competitive team.
“We have taken that attitude that we are really starting from scratch with this program and we are going to build it from the ground up,” James said. “It will be difficult to reach our goals until we have a firm foundation in place. Fortunately, I think we are beginning to see that develop.”
As a result, qualifying will be a big part of the Gophers’ 2008 spring campaign as Minnesota hits the main part of its season with most of its lineup wide open. A total of seven different players made at least two starts during Minnesota’s four-tournament fall schedule and just one Gopher junior Paige Bromen appeared in all four events.
“Last fall was my first semester as the women’s golf coach and I was more concerned about evaluating the team than where we finished,” said James. “We played a lot of combinations and gave the younger group plenty of opportunities. I don’t see us deviating from that strategy this spring because at this point it really is time for new faces and time for a change. We are focused on the long run, not just the short run.”
And Minnesota’s youngsters didn’t disappoint. Freshman Samantha Sommers led the Gophers in stroke average followed closely by sophomore Christine Herzog. Both players appeared in three events, but it was Herzog that really caught James’ eye.
“Christine has evolved into a leader on the course and off,” said James. “She shot her personal best scores last fall and her attitude and practice habits show great leadership. We don’t have team practices so it’s up to the individual to choose when to work on their game. This allows us to see who really wants to be a good player or who’s just going through the motions. Christine is one of our hardest workers and we need more like her because this program has produced a lot of players who are just going through the motions. It’s my job to change that attitude and those players.”
In addition to posting the squad’s second-best stroke average, Herzog also carded the team’s second-lowest round (74) and best finish (tied for 13th) of the fall. Both came at the Badger Invitational.
Sommers was also a bright spot according to James. Not only did the freshman record the squad’s best stroke average and lowest 54-hole score, she also was the only Gopher to notch two top-30 finishes and was 8-for-8 in rounds counted, leading the team in that category as well.
In addition to Sommers, freshman Mary Narzisi also had a solid fall and figures to battle for a spot in the Gophers’ spring lineup on a weekly basis. She posted counting scores in 8-of-9 rounds, carded the team’s second-best 54-hole score and tied for the squad’s second-lowest single-round total.
“Samantha and Mary both arrived with great junior records,” said James. “They both bring a winning attitude to the program, which is something we really need. At the same time I think they realize that they have a lot of work to do to be nationally competitive players, which is a good thing. It’s better to realize it as a freshman rather than as a junior or senior.”
Another freshman who could potentially have a big impact on the program both in the short and long term is newcomer Teresa Puga. A native of A Corua, Spain, Puga is a member of the Spanish National team. Widely considered to be one of the top amateurs in Europe, James expects her to push for immediate playing time in the Gophers’ lineup.
“Teresa brings a lot if international experience and I think what the other members of the team will learn from that is her work ethic and also her perception of a good score,” James said. “She has represented Spain all over the world and has shot a lot of low scores. I think our team is used to shooting a certain score and they’re comfortable with that. Teresa is someone who can come in and say that 75 or 80 is no longer a good score. Now a 68 or a 66 is a good score. She will help us change that perception.”
In addition to Minnesota’s underclassmen, a trio of juniors in Sydney Liles, Young Na Lee and Bromen will also be battling for spots in the Gophers’ starting lineup. Liles made the most of her two appearances during the fall and finished third on the team in stroke average. Lee also made two starts, with her best outing coming at the Lady Paladin Invitational, where she carded the team’s lowest score of the fall with her final-round 73. Bromen, who appeared in all four fall events, struggled with consistency but did show she has what it takes to be a top-20 finisher with her tie for 18th at the Hawkeye Invitational.
Senior Emily Brand and freshman Michele Edlin round out the Gophers’ roster. Both players have the potential to be contributors but need to develop more consistency in order to become regular contributors. Brand owns a wealth of experience and has played in three Big Ten Championships.
Kelli Berns, a regular contributor in seasons past and perhaps Minnesota’s top veteran, is redshirting the 2007-08 campaign to work on improving her game.
“Kelli wants to be an LPGA professional,” James said. “She wants to dedicate time to improving the physical and technical aspectst of her golf swing and we are supporting her decision to sit out this season and return to competition next year.”
But as far as the spring of 2008 is concerned, James sole concern is seeing across-the-board improvement from each individual. He considers player development as his top goal, not the team results.
“I’d like to see us show some improvement in individual stroke average,” said James. “Just two or three shots per round would make a huge difference and would be a great accomplishment. If we were to win some tournaments along the way that would be great, but I don’t think we’re in a position to start thinking on quite that scale just yet. Not at this time in the process at least. In two years time I will start to expect that.”
And just having that level of expectation along can make all the difference in the world. As James says “it’s time for a new beginning.”