OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Writers often shy away from picking the No. 1 team because they’re afraid it looks as though they have no insight to offer. Too obvious.
A former colleague refused to pick the top-ranked team for several years after writing “Duke, Duke, Duke and Duke” in 2003. Duke finished 10th that year, and he held a grudge.
Well, Duke isn’t even on the radar this year, and I like to look smart. The NCAA Championship trophy will reside on the West Coast for another year, some place nice and toasty, like Tempe, Ariz.
Arizona State is unquestionably the hottest school in the country right now. Aside from refusing to give President Barack Obama an honorary degree, ASU can do no wrong.
The Sun Devils won Pac-10s by nine strokes over USC and then beat the Trojans by 19 at the NCAA West Regional. ASU also won the Duramed Fall Preview here in September and heads into the year’s final contest as Golfweek’s No. 1 team. Sure they’ve had trouble in the past living up to high expectations at this event, but things are different this time around.
Just ask the seniors.
“We have a fifth player, which is a change,” said Azahara Munoz, who won the individual title at last year’s NCAA Championship in New Mexico.
Jennifer Osborn, who is known on ASU’s team as my twin (Apparently, we also have the same laugh.), said this week feels like any other tournament, something she couldn’t say at previous NCAAs.
“We have a pretty stacked team,” said Osborn as she sat in the team van May 17, shielded from chilly temps.
So stacked, in fact, that Osborne found herself playing as an individual at the Betsy Rawls in March and thought to herself, “I’m a senior, this can’t happen.”
Focus returned to her practice sessions and she wound up in a playoff with teammate Carlota Ciganda for the Pac-10 title. She, like the rest of her teammates, is peaking at the right time.
Then there’s Ciganda, the quiet but competitive Spaniard who took this spring season by storm. She arrived in Tempe in January, and already is Golfweek’s No. 1 player, winning both Pac-10s and the NCAA West Regional. In a wide-open race for NGCA Player of the Year, she currently tops my list.
“I don’t even think she knows they have a Player of the Year title,” said Munoz, who thinks Caves Valley suits her good friend’s game. (Munoz, No. 4, isn’t out of the race herself.)
Ciganda’s low-key personality should help take the edge off for the Sun Devils. Juliana Murcia, ranked 11th, and Oklahoma State transfer Jaclyn Sweeney (67th) round out this deep lineup.
In 2007, ASU spent most of the season ranked No. 1, winning five times. They opened with a ghastly 19-over 307 in Daytona Beach and looked shell-shocked the rest of the week.
That won’t happen at Caves Valley. Coach Melissa Luellen learned to keep things simple and routine at the NCAAs.
Captain Obvious wins.
NCAA Division I Women’s Championship
Caves Valley Golf Club, Owings Mills, Md.
My team pick: Arizona State
My pick’s biggest competition: UCLA
Next in line: USC
Congrats on makin’ it: Chattanooga
My individual pick: Carlota Ciganda, ASU
Keep an eye on: Lizette Salas, USC
Most overlooked player: Maria Hernandez, Purdue
Local favorite: Stephanie Connelly, UCF (area native)
Most celebrated career: Amanda Blumenherst, Duke
Biggest Swan Song: UNC coach Sally Austin