Like the maid of honor in a wedding, the straight man in a comedy act or the crew chief of a race team, UCLA has played second fiddle to the mighty Duke Blue Devils all season.
But don’t think for a moment that the Bruins will be satisfied with runner-up honors when the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship is held May 18-21 at Auburn’s Grand National Lake Course in Opelika, Ala. Instead, UCLA is hoping for an East Coast vs. West Coast showdown and expects to see its own shade of blue atop the leaderboard when the final putt drops.
“I think we’re all going into (the NCAA Championship) knowing that Duke is going to shoot lights out,” said UCLA freshman Hannah Jun, who earned medalist honors at the NCAA West Regional. “On the other hand, I don’t think any of us are intimidated by that.”
Nor should they be. If anyone can keep Duke from taking home its third national championship in the last six years, it’s the Bruins, who won their lone NCAA title in 1991. The two squads have faced each other only twice this season – Duke won both times – but the last time was seven months ago at the Stanford Fall Invitational.
After a slow start in the fall, UCLA performed brilliantly in the spring, winning five of its six events, including the Pac-10 Championship and the NCAA West Regional. During that stretch, junior Charlotte Mayorkas won four of six events and helped propel both herself and the Bruins to No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
“We became a solid, more-together team because of the fall,” Mayorkas said. “Everyone put in more time and worked much harder. The results in the spring showed that.”
Most other years, UCLA would be on top of the college golf world. Mayorkas (No. 2) and sophomore Susie Mathews (No. 10) are the Bruins’ top two players and let their scores do the talking. Freshman Jun (No. 15) brings raw talent and an aggressive attitude. Seniors Gina Umeck (No. 46) and Krystal Shearer (not ranked) provide consistency and veteran leadership. Together, they know how to win, they’re hungry and they’re experienced. All the essential tools to capture a national title.
However, when Duke plays its best golf, the Blue Devils are tough to beat. Coming into the NCAA Championship, Duke had won nine of 10 events, and has five players – Liz Janangelo (No. 1), Brittany Lang (No. 3), Virada Nirapathpongporn (No. 5), Anna Grzebien (No. 15) and Leigh Anne Hardin (No. 16) – ranked in the top 16. Only three times has Duke failed to have an individual winner. Janangelo, a sophomore, and Lang, a freshman, lead the Blue Devils in victories with four and three, respectively.
Duke and UCLA have unfinished business from poor performances at last year’s NCAA Championship. Duke entered on a four-tournament winning streak and was the overwhelming favorite to repeat as national champions. But the Blue Devils struggled all four days, never found a rhythm and wound up a disappointing 10th.
Shouldering expectations of contending for a national title for the first time in a decade, the Bruins essentially shot themselves out of the tournament in the first round. They rebounded with solid performances in rounds 3 and 4 to jump into a tie for fifth, well behind national champion Southern California.
“Last year, I don’t know if we could have felt more disgusted by our finish,” UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth said. “The only positive that came from that experience is that it has fired us up this year. It’s not something we want to repeat.”
No matter the motivation, UCLA knows that opportunities like the one it will have next week don’t come along every year. Eventually, the Bruins know they have to jump up and seize the moment.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Forsyth said. “There are a lot of good teams. When you get to nationals, the regular season doesn’t mean anything.
“If you don’t win there, you’re an also-ran.”