PELLA—Extending Central College’s successful three-year women’s golf run that brought the program to the national stage will require reinforcements.

A dramatic win in the American Rivers tournament last fall gave the Dutch their second league title in three years as well as a second trip to the NCAA Division III Championships in Houston in May.

But there’s a gaping hole at the top of the lineup with the graduation of league MVP Brittany Coppess. Coach Tim Wilkinson is counting on accelerated growth from his returning players combined with contributions from his freshman class to fill the void.

“Brittany gave us the ability to post a really low score, but I think we’ll have a little more depth,” he said. “Our scoring average shouldn’t change a whole lot, but we’ll be a lot more consistent from top to bottom. We shouldn’t have to count a 90 or even throw out a 90, which is nice. There’s not as much pressure on the players at the top because you don’t have to make up for a higher score on the back end.”

Statistically, Emily Opsal (senior, Verona, Wis.) inherits the team’s No. 1 mantle. A two-time team MVP and three-time letterwinner, she shadowed Coppess with an 82.2 stroke average and is a two-time all-conference honoree, placing ninth in 2016, 12th the following year and fourth last fall. She’s also a two-time Google Cloud/CoSIDA Academic All-District and academic all-conference performer.

“If you look at her numbers, (playing at No. 1) would make the most sense,” Wilkinson said. “But they’re all capable. I think it will be truly scoring by committee.”

Opsal hasn’t reached her ceiling and flashed some of her potential with an opening-round 77 at the national tournament. Wilkinson wants to see progress in multiple areas that typically come with experience.

“Being a little more focused during the round, course management and putting are always things that tend to get in our way in terms of things we can control,” Wilkinson said. “As golfers get older in college and mature, they tend to make better decisions on the course. Brittany demonstrated that growth. I think that’s something you expect to see from your upperclassmen.”

Fellow senior Lexie Patton (Aurelia, Alta-Aurelia HS) is a team medalist threat as well. Also a three-time letterwinner, she averaged 85.2 for the year, including 84.1 in the fall, and received all-league distinction with a ninth-place tourney showing.

“With Lexi, the big thing is probably improving her shots around the green,” Wilkinson said. “She said she’s hitting her driver really well this summer so I expect that to continue. She does a pretty good job of staying positive but it’s always a challenge when you’re not playing your best golf, keeping it together so that you still have a decent round rather than a throwaway round.”

Opsal and Patton give the Dutch a reliable veteran tandem at the top.

“Lexi and Emily have both shown the ability to post low scores and I think that they’re coming into their senior year with the right mindset, wanting to enjoy it and not looking at it as a pressure situation where they have to do this,” Wilkinson said.

Sophomore Rachael Danielson (Jefferson, Greene County HS) may be poised to make the biggest leap. The team’s most valuable freshman a year ago enjoyed a healthy off-season. She was 16th at the league tournament and averaged 89.0 for the year.

“I would guess that her scores will probably see the biggest improvement because she’s coming off a summer in where she’s not rehabbing from an injury, she understands what college golf is like and knows what she needs to work on to get better,” Wilkinson said. “I’m excited to see what she’s able to put up there for her sophomore campaign.”

Senior Stacy Mohr (Sigourney) eventually won the No. 5 spot in the lineup last year. She averaged 98.4, but is capable of posting low numbers, Wilkinson said.

“I would love to see Stacy get back to the form she was in before she went to Spain (for a study abroad semester) as a sophomore,” he said. “That fall season she improved every time she played and her last two rounds were 81 and 82. I think she’s been putting in the work. I think last year was a little frustrating for her.”

The lineup is also getting some help from newcomers.

“I think we’ve got two freshmen who will challenge for a spot in the top five and give us that competitive edge we need at the back of the lineup,” Wilkinson said.

Madison Clark (freshman, Bloomington, Ill., Central Catholic HS) brings championship credentials.

“Her team won state in Illinois,” Wilkinson said. “She’s been in a successful program and has been around quality golfers. On paper, she would probably be the next best scorer, although that’s high school and there’s not always a direct correlation.”

He also has high hopes for Delaney Underwood (freshman, Colfax, Colfax-Mingo HS).

“I think Delaney was disappointed in how she played and finished at the state tournament (last spring) but she was a top-10 finisher her junior year and I think is capable of shooting in the 70s,” Wilkinson said. “She has a passion for golf that lends itself to being successful in college. It’s easier to get better at something when you really want to do it.”

The league continues to improve, with traditional contenders Wartburg College, Luther College and Central getting pushed by others.

“I think it’s going to be a deeper conference,” Wilkinson said. “Dubuque has shown it’s capable of putting together good scores. Luther’s coach is now at Coe, so you would expect they’re going to get things turned around there. It used to be three teams at the top but now there’s more and that’s definitely good for the conference.”

It’s a 54-hole, three-day format for the league championship this year as the conference abandoned the 72-hole tourney that was stretched over two weekends. It will also be at a neutral site, the Ames Country Club. Previously the final 36 holes were staged on the home course of the host school.

“They looked at some historical data and the (fourth) day of the tournament didn’t seem to change the outcome,” Wilkinson said. “It usually just separated everybody further.”

Playing three consecutive days more closely mirrors what’s required at the NCAA tournament.

“That third day is going to be the separating day between players who are in golf shape and are mentally tough enough to compete for three days and those who aren’t,” Wilkinson said. “It’s also more consistent with what the rest of the country is doing in regard to championships.”

The biggest change in the schedule is a trip to the Illinois Wesleyan Fall Invitational in Normal, Illinois Sept. 14-15.

“It will be nice to see different players and mix it up a little bit,” Wilkinson said.

With two trips to the NCAA championships in three seasons, the Dutch are tournament-tested, and Wilkinson thinks that’s an advantage.

“The experience you have at nationals, regardless of how you performed, really highlights not only things you do well but also the things you maybe don’t do as well as you thought you did,” Wilkinson said. “That kind of environment really brings out your game, both good and bad. I think they both learned from the experience and came into the summer with a pretty good idea of things they needed to work on.”

He shares his players’ eagerness.

“Anytime you bring in a class of freshmen, regardless of how big it is, that has an opportunity to contribute, balanced with some players who are coming back and enthused about their senior year, that’s exciting,” Wilkinson said. “The little bit of unknown certainly keeps it interesting so you’re anxious to get started, get everybody on campus and start to qualify.”

Perry Bell can be reached at sports@journalexpress.net or by calling the Knoxville newsroom at 641-842-2155.

Perry Bell can be reached at sports@journalexpress.net or by calling the Knoxville newsroom at 641-842-2155.

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