By Jay A. Coffin
Erica Blasberg’s season began with hopes of becoming the NCAA’s Freshman of the Year. But the Arizona standout already has raised the stakes. She’s making a run for Player of the Year.
The 18-year-old from Corona, Calif., not only tops the freshman class, but all classes, checking in at No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings heading into the spring season. Blasberg isn’t sure how she has made the transition from high school to college appear so effortless.
“I didn’t really know what to expect and thought it would be crazy,” Blasberg said. “I don’t know how I have been able to do all of this and compete. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it so well.”
In four events, Blasberg tied for 21st at the NCAA Fall Preview – her first college event – then finished second, first and third. At the Mason Rudolph Championship, Blasberg entered the final round in the lead but shot 75 and finished second.
At the Stanford-Pepsi Invitational, she took home medalist honors after closing with consecutive 69s.
Blasberg is the latest in a long line of successful freshmen during the last 12 years at Arizona. Annika Sorenstam won three events, including the NCAA Championship in her freshman season; Marisa Baena won six times, including the Pac-10 and NCAA championships; Natalie Gulbis won three events; and Lorena Ochoa won four. Only Ochoa’s 71.56 scoring average was better than Blasberg’s 72.25 as a freshman. Blasberg’s scoring average leads the team by more than 2.5 shots per round (Anne Lee is next at 74.90) and her record is 23-13-1 vs. top-25 players and 304-23-3 overall.
Blasberg not only has experienced success quickly, but is known for being a consummate teammate with a sparkling personality and self-deprecating humor.
“She’s very independent and low maintenance,” said Arizona coach Greg Allen, whose Wildcats are ranked No. 1. “You never really need to worry about her, she’s very mature. I think she’s just now realizing her potential. I think she just now sees how good she can be, and that’s scary.”
When Blasberg first arrived in Tucson, she was not aware of Allen’s preseason workout regimen. Blasberg had never lifted weights, and other fitness concepts were foreign to her. Blasberg was quickly nicknamed “Skipper” when she did not know how to skip in one of Allen’s cardiovascular drills.
“I had never done any of that in my life,” she said. “But now, it’s definitely something good that I’m getting from college.”
Blasberg says her consistent iron play is the strongest part of her game, with chipping and bunker shots her weaknesses. “There is still so much golf and so much time,” Blasberg said. “I have a lot to learn. There is still so long to go, but I’m happy with what’s happening right now.”
Blasberg is one of 17 freshmen in the top 100 of the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, and one of three in the top 13. Eight of the 17 are the highest-ranked individuals on their respective squads, and eight of the top 10 teams have at least one freshman in the top 100 (Arizona and Tennessee each have two).
Tennessee freshman Violeta Retamoza is ranked No. 4 and won two of three events, including the Auburn Tiger Derby Invitational, traditionally one of the fall’s strongest events. Retamoza, a 19-year-old from Aquascalientes, Mexico, has a 73.13 stroke average. Retamoza and Augusta State’s Leah Hart, ranked No. 56, are the only freshmen to win twice.
Duke’s Elizabeth Janangelo, a 19-year-old freshman from West Hartford, Conn., played four events, won once and tied for second twice. Janangelo, ranked 13th, leads the defending NCAA champion Blue Devils in scoring average at 73.50, slightly ahead of 2002 NCAA individual champion Virada Nirapathpongporn’s 73.83.
Only time will tell how many more freshmen will emerge prior to the NCAA Championship. The last freshman to win an NCAA individual title was Southern California’s Jennifer Rosales in 1998.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a freshman certainly was in contention at NCAAs,” Allen said. “I don’t know about winning, but definitely in contention.”