Despite winning a fourth Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship in five years, Western Washington University’s women’s golf team was shut out of further postseason play for the third straight year last season.
This year the Vikings are determined to take the next step. WWU had the three top finishers at the GNAC Tournament last season, with Anna Bourland taking the top spot and Brooke Branigan and Kristen Hansen taking second and third, respectively.
Hansen was the only Viking to qualify for the NCAA Division II West Super Regional Tournament, and she finished 36th at the event. Hansen also was the GNAC Player of the Year, following up her Freshman of the Year performance the year prior.
“She’s proven that she is a main competitor at our level,” WWU coach Bo Stephan said in a phone interview. “To be honest she isn’t our best golfer in qualifying. She reminds me of another golfer I had who we just knew would be ready for big tournaments, but didn’t do too well in qualifying.”
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Bourland, the senior captain, uses her experience to help the entire team, Stephan said.
“She’s seen it all and had a lot of experiences,” he said. “She’s definitely the heartbeat of the team. The girls all look up to her, and she’s a great player also.”
Branigan leads a trio of Bellingham High School graduates, who have helped the Red Raiders win 12 of the last 13 Class 2A state golf titles, and now will look to help the Vikings get to the national tournament.
Branigan had a rough start to the season last year, but bounced back to finish second at the GNAC Tournament. She put too much pressure on herself at the beginning of last season, she said.
“For some reason I felt like I had a ton of pressure, but what changed was I focused on the individual competition,” she said in a phone interview. “I’ve found that an aggressive mindset works well for me. I was paired with the girl who won at a tournament in Texas and playing with her gave me an extra challenge. Now I can challenge myself on every shot.”
Audrey Orem also came to the Vikings from Bellingham High with Branigan last year. Orem surpassed her own expectations in her freshman year, and hopes to continue that this year, she said.
“(My expectations) weren’t too high, but I did better than I thought,” she said in a phone interview. “This season I’d like to place better in more tournaments and get in at least one top 10. I changed up a few things in my swing and went with a new chipping technique for this season.”
The third former Red Raider is incoming freshman Jenn Paul, who took second individually at the Class 2A State Tournament last season. Branigan hopes that a couple of familiar faces can help Paul get quickly acclimated to the college game.
“Jenn and I first met as competitors, so we’ve always had a strong competition on the course,” Branigan said. “It pushes us each to be better. That’s why our high school team was so strong, we all pushed each other.”
Having Branigan join her at WWU helped Orem make the transition to college golf easier, Orem said.
“It’s so nice having two former teammates on the team,” she added. “Especially last year, when I didn’t know anyone I had Brooke, and I bet that’s the same for her. It makes you take it a little more seriously, so you push yourself to get the better score over them or outdrive them. I know we have a winning mentality coming from Bellingham, and that will help us strive to win more with Western.”
Stephan feels lucky to have a hotbed of golf talent right in his backyard.
“It’s funny because I feel like I have to explain myself, ‘Why do you have so many Bellingham girls?’” he said. “It’s a testament to junior golf in the area and the quality of their high school golf. I feel like I’m being lazy, but the truth is if they were from Yelm or Spokane I’d still be recruiting them because they’re competitive and look to get better.
“And I can’t say enough about (Bellingham High girls’ golf coach Brad McKay), because he provided the atmosphere for them to get better and improve. I think I’m up to like five or six Bellingham grads that have played for me, and they’ve all been awesome.”
WWU opens its season Monday, Sept. 22, at Western New Mexico University Mustang Invitational, at the Coldwater Golf Club in Phoenix.