OWINGS MILLS, Md. — With tears in her eyes as she watched her players cradle the national championship trophy, Arizona State head coach Melissa Luellen took a deep breath and summed up a season she’ll never forget.
“What a hell of a year,” she said. “We did it.”
The top-ranked Sun Devils capped a perfect postseason with a victory Friday at the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship. With a second consecutive 3-over 291, Arizona State pulled away from Pac-10 rivals UCLA and USC on the back nine at Caves Valley to earn the program’s seventh national title and first since 1998.
Senior Azahara Munoz, who won last year’s NCAA individual title, shot 72 in the final round to tie for fourth as the Sun Devils finished eight shots ahead of the second-ranked Bruins and nine in front of the third-ranked Trojans. Freshman Carlota Ciganda (72) and sophomore Jaclyn Sweeney (75) tied for 11th.
“We peaked at the right time,” said senior Jennifer Osborn, who shot 75 and tied for 21st. “And then we totally dominated.”
The run to the national championship started early for the Sun Devils with a victory at the Fall Preview in September and at the Derby Invitational a month later. But before Christmas, senior standout Anna Nordqvist informed the team she would be turning pro.
Her absence turned out to be a non-factor. Luellen brought in Sweeney, a transfer from Oklahoma State, and Ciganda, a Spanish star who won the 2007 British Amateur and 2008 European Championship.
The new-look Sun Devils gelled quickly, winning the spring’s opening event, then capturing the Pac-10 Championship and West Regional by a combined 28 shots. Ciganda won both titles.
It wasn’t that easy for the Sun Devils early at Caves Valley. ASU was eight back of first-round leader Denver. By the end of Round 2, the margin had grown to 11. Luellen said her team was playing tentative. UCLA had zipped ahead and USC was coming on strong.
“I was on the brink of tears after the second round,” Sweeney said. “I was stressing out majorly. But I knew we had a great team and something was going to click.”
Spurred by Sweeney’s third-round 69 and a 72 from Munoz, the Sun Devils vaulted into second place, a shot behind USC and two shots ahead of UCLA, setting up a final-round duel between the top three teams in the country.
The heavyweights traded punches on the front nine and it looked like the national championship would be decided late. But the Sun Devils pulled away.
Ciganda and junior Juliana Murcia played their final nine holes in 1 under, while UCLA’s top gun, sophomore Maria Jose Uribe, bogeyed three of her last eight holes to close with 77. USC sophomore Lizette Salas (75) didn’t make a final-round birdie and junior Belen Mozo (76) had five bogeys before making her first birdie at No. 17.
Trojan freshman Jennifer Song held the individual lead throughout the final round, and needed par at No. 18 to seal the victory. But she hit her approach short into a greenside bunker, then three-putted for double bogey, handing the individual title to Purdue senior Maria Hernandez, who had finished an hour earlier and was warming up on the driving range.
“It’s really nice to smile at the end, but I couldn’t finish that way,” said Song, who shot 74. “Maybe if I stayed in the present more, I think I would have done much better. At the end, I was totally out of it.”
With her victory at the NCAA Championship, Hernandez sealed her national player of the year title. She won six times this season including her second Big Ten title. In the final round at Caves Valley, she birdied two of her last three holes to shoot 71 and finish at 1-over 289.
“I don’t think I believe it right now,” Hernandez said. “I knew today that I had to go all out.”
The Sun Devils went all out, too, in their celebration. It was tough to tell if the tears outnumbered the hugs.
“This team has a determination,” Luellen said. “They’ve embraced every challenge.”