Denver’s dream run continues

Univeristy of Denver head coach Sammie Chergo watches her players at No. 9 during the 2009 NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md.

Univeristy of Denver head coach Sammie Chergo watches her players at No. 9 during the 2009 NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md.

Women's Rankings »

RankNameSchoolRating
1Alison LeeUCLA  69.59 
2Annie ParkUSC  69.73 
3Yu LiuDuke  69.81 
4Stephanie MeadowAlabama  70.00 
5Gaby LopezArkansas  70.01 

Women's Team Rankings »

RankNameRatingEvents
1Southern California 70.32 
2UCLA 70.60 
3Duke 70.79 
4Stanford 71.49  10 
5Arkansas 71.52 

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Denver coach Sammie Chergo is the queen of understatement and the master of downplay.

She didn’t bother to look at a scoreboard or check live scoring on her cell phone Tuesday during the opening round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship.

When told her team was the first-round leader, the coach didn’t bat an eyelash.

“I swear I didn’t know,” Chergo said. “There’s just so many good teams here.”

The Pioneers will go to bed Tuesday night as the best of the bunch. Denver dissected brutal Caves Valley in 294 strokes and leads the national championship favorites UCLA by two, USC by seven and Arizona State by eight.

Junior Stephanie Sherlock capped her 2-under 70 with birdies on Nos. 17 and 18 to share the individual lead. Sophomore Ellie Givens birdied three of her final six holes for a 73, and senior Katie Kempter spread out four birdies in a 74.

Still, the team wasn’t high-fiving after the round. Sherlock shrugged her shoulders at the thought that the Pioneers were in the driver’s seat.

“There’s no reason to get excited,” Sherlock said. “We just keep doing what we do.”

Lately, Denver has been doing everything well. The Pioneers won the Sun Belt Conference Championship for the sixth consecutive year in late April, then tacked on a victory at the NCAA East Regional two weeks ago. Chergo’s squad stays loose by tossing around a Frisbee it calls “Fritz” and keeping its golf games at the golf course when a tournament round ends.

“We’re just very calm,” Chergo said.

Sun Devils coach Melissa Luellen used another word to describe her troops.

“Tentative,” she said about her team. “They didn’t want to make mistakes.”

The country’s top-ranked team made just two birdies on the front nine and didn’t mount a charge coming in. Freshman Carlota Ciganda, who won the Pac-10 Championship and West Regional, had just one circle on her scorecard in a 2-over 74. Defending NCAA champ Azahara Munoz failed to make a birdie and posted 78. Her score was thrown out.

“That’s just not like our team,” Luellen said.

Third-ranked USC, the defending NCAA champs, played un-Trojan like, too, going 13 over as a team on the back nine. Second-ranked UCLA was also taking a tumble down the leaderboard, but rallied late. Sydnee Michaels was 4 over after 15 holes, then eagled the 454-yard, par-5 17th, while Stephanie Kono followed a double bogey at the par-4 14th with three consecutive birdies.

“It could have been a lot worse,” Bruins senior Tiffany Joh said. “We battled really well today.”

Denver, meanwhile, was concerned with another battle.

After hitting a few balls at the driving range, the team was headed to a local restaurant to watch the Denver Nuggets play the Los Angeles Lakes in Game 1 of the NBA’s Western Conference Semifinals. Chergo grew up in Colorado rooting for her hometown team and knows that they’re an underdog against the favored Lakers.

“Actually, we’re kind of like the Nuggets,” said Chergo, who had slipped on a Denver Nugget T-shirt following the round. “We’re playing all these big teams and we’ve got three more quarters to go.”

• • •

One of the best players on Day 1 of the NCAA Championship grew up trying to get a ball to miss it’s target, not hit it.

A little over a year ago, North Carolina freshman Catherine O’Donnell was leading the girl’s soccer team at Ponte Vedra Beach’s Nease High to its second Florida state championship in three years. O’Donnell the goalie stopped every ball that came her way in the championship match en route to a 3-0 victory.

Tuesday at Caves Valley, O’Donnell the golfer seemingly made every ball go in the hole.

On a course players and coaches called the toughest they’ve seen all season, O’Donnell shot 2-under 70 to share the opening-round lead with Sherlock. O’Donnell was 3 under after 14 holes, before a three-putt bogey late in her round.

“The round of my season so far,” O’Donnell said. “I like this course. It weeds out the good players from the bad players.”

The Tar Heels, who posted the best round of the morning wave, ended the day in third at 11-over 299.

• • •

Michigan State has been one of the 24 teams to play in the national championship seven of the past nine years. Yet the Spartans have not made a serious run at the title.

Could this year be different?

The Spartans finished the morning wave Tuesday as the second-best team after posting a 19-over 307.

In 2001, Emily Bastel led Michigan State to a 12th-place showing, the best in program history. After Round 1 at Caves Valley, the Spartans are in the same spot.

Lindsey Solberg led the team with a 1-over 73 Tuesday. Laura Kueny, No. 18 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, added a 74 for the Spartans.

“We expect to be in these positions,” Michigan State coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll said.

Michigan State’s season has quietly good, with Kueny, Aimee Neff and Solberg leading the Spartans into the top 25. During the spring’s stretch run, Shannon Warner has been the team’s MVP. The freshman finished eighth at the Big Ten Conference Championship and tied for 20th at the Central Regional.

“That really lifted us at the end of the year,” Slobodnik-Stoll said.

“What we try to preach is it really is just another tournament,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “This team has the opportunity to do something we have never done.”

• • •

SHORT SHOTS: Just two of the top-10-ranked players in the country are in the top 10 on the individual leaderboard - No. 2 Jennifer Song (T-3) of USC and No. 6 Stephanie Kono (T-7) of UCLA. . . . The average score in the first round was 77.92. Just how hard was it? USC junior Belen Mozo, who finished fourth at the NCAA Championship last year, bogeyed seven of her last 11 holes and shot 78.

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