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    Illinois Women's Golf Preview
    Ember Schuldt returns to the starting line-up next week at the Ram Classic.

    Ember Schuldt returns to the starting line-up next week at the Ram Classic.
    Illinois women's golf continues to make strides year-by-year and the Illini under head coach Renee Slone hope to continue that momentum into 2012-13.

    In 2012, the Illini had their best Big Ten finish (fifth) in Slone's six years as head coach and advanced to the NCAA Regional for the second straight season. Illinois is looking for its first ever trip to the NCAA finals, which it nearly pulled that off last year, sitting fifth after the first round of the regional before finishing 14th.

    "In qualifying for regionals two years in a row, our players now have determined that's our standard," Slone said. "Now let's take it to the next step. As a team, we need to work a little harder and smarter. We're honing in on certain aspects of our game that will pay huge dividends, which are putting and wedge play. Our team is extremely motivated and there is a really positive vibe."

    Illinois graduated four of the five players that were in the line-up for the regional, meaning there will be strong competition for open spots this season. To help fill that hole, the Illini are the beneficiary of a talented transfer in Samantha Postillion from the University of Texas, who comes to Illinois with three seasons of eligibility remaining. Postillion, who played three years at Hinsdale Central and finished seventh at the 2007 IHSA Class AA state meet, had an impressive summer. She tied for first at the Illinois Women's Open, coming up just short in a three-person playoff, claimed the Women's Chicago District Amateur Match Play championship, and took the title at the Arizona Women's State Amateur in a state where she attended prep school.

    "Sam has had a terrific summer," Slone said. "She's worked really hard on her game the last several months and is in a really good place right now. She posted a two-under par in our first round of qualifying, so things are continuing very well for her."

    Postillion will be among the five Illinois players that make the trip to Fort Collins, Colo., for the season-opening Colonel Wollenberg's Ram Classic, which is Sept. 10-11. Last year Illinois tied for second in the 19-team event and put two players in the top five and four in the top 15.

    Joining Postillion on the trip will be junior Ember Schuldt, the only returning player from last year's regional line-up, sophomore Michelle Mayer, who was a member of the 2012 Big Ten Championships line-up, redshirt sophomore Jacqueline Calamaro, and sophomore Pimploy Thirati from Bangkok, Thailand.

    The 2011-12 team posted the best team stroke average in school history (303.86 for 54 holes). Schuldt had the 10th-best single-season stroke average individually with a 76.69, which was also fourth-best on the team. She has been a regular member of the line-up for two years and last year carded five top-15 finishes, including a tie for fifth at the Ram Fall Classic. Schuldt's best collegiate round was a 67 en route to an 11th place at the Challenge at Onion Creek during her freshman campaign.

    Schuldt, a business major, had a heavy load in summer school and didn't play as many summer tournaments as she has in the past. Slone says that Schuldt actually the lack of summer competition actually helped re-energize her.

    "That break was very beneficial for her," Slone said. "She feels fresh, ready to go, and is looking forward to a great season."

    Illinois brings back a pair of seniors in Crystal Smith and Kaitlyn Wampler. Smith has participated in nine tournaments as an Illini, posting a round of 75 at the 2011 Big Ten Championships.

    Wampler participated in 10 tournaments as a sophomore in 2010 before having wrist surgery and used the 2010-11 season as a redshirt. She had three top-10 finishes in 2010, tying for second at the Hawkeye Invitational, for third at the UC Spring Invitational and for seventh the Ron Moore Intercollegiate.

    "Crystal is a warm encouraging person that is very supportive of the entire team," Slone said. "She has always been behind that large senior class that we've had. Now she's at that point where she can branch out and blossom.

    "Kaitlyn is our team motivator. On the course, it's been a slow and gradual process for her to get back, but I know she is looking forward to great things this year."

    Like Wampler, Calamaro has had to battle back from injury after undergoing hip surgery. She is in the line-up this week after competing in just three tournaments as a redshirt freshman. Calamaro tied for sixth at the Fighting Camel Classic and tied for 15th at the Hoosier Fall Invitational.

    "Jackie was just trying to get her bearings back last year," Slone said. "She has made a few changes in her swing and in her game over the summer and I already see those paying big dividends."

    Mayer competed in five tournaments as a sophomore and joined the other starting five in the six-person line-up for the Big Ten Championships, where she finished a solid tie for 33rd and fired a final-round 76.

    "Michelle already hits the ball an extremely long way, but amazingly she has managed to gain length," Slone said. "Now we just have to fine tune that. She has worked tremendously on her short game this summer and has added a number of different shots to her arsenal around the greens."

    Thirati, who earned a Thailand Golf Association Junior Ranking from 2009-10, cracks the line-up for the first time in her two-year career. In July, she tied for 16th at the 2012 Illinois Women's Open with rounds of 81-72-74.

    "Pim stayed in the States during the summer and played in some tournaments," reported Slone. "I think those rounds at the Illinois Open were a great boost to her confidence. I think now she's ready to step up and contribute."

    Starting with the Ram Classic, the Illini compete in three tournaments in two weeks, playing in the Dale McNamera Invitational in Tulsa on Sept. 17-18 and the Wolverine Invitational in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 22-23.

    "We felt that it would be beneficial to play in a few more tournaments early, especially with so many players coming off their summer play and being sharp." Slone said. "We also wanted to get some tournaments in before the academic load got to be a little heavier later in the semester."

    Live stats for Colonel Wollenberg's Ram Classic can be found at golfstatresults.com .

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