MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- When Shannon Sykora took over the reigns of the Buccaneers women's golf program as the acting head coach in the summer, he came up with a plan that is really no different from any other college golf coach. Yet it's one that needed implementation.
With more talent and depth added to a roster that returned all five members of its 2012 fourth place NCAA Division II National Championship squad, the competition for playing time increased this year. Now just days away from the start of the 2012-13 season, the Buccaneers enter the season set to tee off at the Division II Women's Preview in Daytona Beach with more changes besides the coaching figurehead.
"Overall, I'm trying to have the girls compete every day so that we can put the best team on the course," Sykora said. "We're trying to compete as much as possible so that when it comes to the spring, we'll have a tournament-sharp unit. It's a new mix this year. The freshmen have come in prepared to compete for spots, and they've shown it."
Freshmen Nicky Ferre and Maria Paola Fiorio asserted themselves right away in the bid to compete in the five-player lineup. That doesn't mean they'll be guaranteed spots each week, what with the competitive nature this newly-assembled team assumes. But again, that was all part of the plan.
"My philosophy is let the best five play based on qualification," Sykora said. "It gives everyone a great chance. We have more depth because on any given day our best players can be beat. That's where it's competitive.
"I want them to be in their own world out there, and try to beat their teammates. But away from the course, I want them to be great teammates."
It all starts with senior Taylor Babcock, a returning National Golf Coaches Association honorable mention All-American, who finished in the top 10 in eight events last year. Babcock led the Bucs with a 77.69 stroke average last year. She shot 21 rounds in the 70s in 2011-12.
Sophomores Nancy Vergara, Paola Grande, Daniela Murray and Francesca Perini all return after helping the Buccaneers claim national tournament hardware in Louisville in the spring. Vergara, who played for her native Venezuela in international tournaments, was second on last year's team in scoring average. Her 78.89 stroke average was anchored around 15 rounds in the 70s. She placed second at the season-opening event a year ago.
Grande had nine rounds in the 70s in 2011-12. She placed 12th at the Sunshine State Conference Championships, and carried an 80.69 stroke average. Murray, the elder stateswoman of the sophomore sisters, had a 79.50 stroke average. She had 10 rounds in the 70s, and finished runner-up in one event. Perini had seven rounds in the 70s, placed 11th at the Barry Tri-Match, and carried an 80.60 stroke average through 15 rounds.
Ferre, the Miami Herald and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel Player of the Year as a senior in high school, won the Central Florida Tournament of Champions, shooting a 6-under 66. She was eighth at the state championships. Fiorio was a semifinalist at the Italian Match Play Nationals in 2011. Fellow freshman Eiken Hansen was part of a high school team that won the Georgia state title.
"Expectations are high because there's real competition at home," Sykora said. "Scores at home have been solid."
In a region, not to mention league, where three other schools entered the season ranked in the top 10 of the NCAA Division II Golfweek preseason poll, the Buccaneers won't have a free pass back to the national tournament. But with the squad Barry has put together, there's no reason to believe they won't be part of the mix come spring.
"Definitely," Sykora said. "I can see these players developing into top-notch players."
Top-notch players with top-notch personalities that show two different faces from time to time.
"There's some seriousness," Sykora said, pensively taking into consideration the playful side his new team also exhibits. "I think it's been pretty serious. The girls are trying to come in and grab a spot. Once we shut it down (after the fall season), there will be a little time to have fun, work out a little bit and work on our game. I think the girls' personalities, from top to bottom, mesh well together."
That's the aim this team is shooting for throughout the course of the 2012-13 academic year, to use a few golf terms. Now it's up to the Bucs to let it all sink in.
"Everybody's pretty excited to kick off the season," Sykora said. "We'll have our fall season to really see where we're at. Hopefully we can get some momentum going into the spring."