FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Parity. It’s such an over-used word. Every year coaches drone on about the depth of women’s college golf. And while it’s undoubtedly true that the overall quality of play is stronger than ever, it has only been in the last three years that someone other than the usual suspects stepped up at the NCAA Championship.
This year marked the first time I can remember that multiple teams not playing in the final groups were in contention down the stretch. Deep into the third round, it looked as though Alabama were going to walk away with the championship. Twenty-four hours later, no fewer than four teams – Alabama, USC, LSU and Virginia – had a shot at winning.
That’s particularly impressive given that top-ranked UCLA wasn’t in the mix. And the dynasty schools – Arizona State (seven national titles) and Duke (five titles) – also were out of range.
Alabama is the second first-time winner in the last three years at the NCAA Championship. This, ladies and gentlemen, is parity at the top.
“Schools are making a bigger commitment, hiring better coaches,” said Purdue coach Devon Brouse, whose team played in the final group at the NCAAs for the third consecutive year. “There are $3 million facilities all over the place now.”
The excitement level around the 18th green at the Vanderbilt Legends Club felt championship-caliber. There was great admiration for Alabama’s Mic Potter, a man who has coached for 29 years.
“Mic’s like a rock of coaches,” Arizona State coach Melissa Luellen said.
Potter left a comfortable niche at Furman seven years ago for the chance to win it all. He immediately turned around a program that hadn’t been to the national championship since 1987. Last year, his team also had a strong chance of winning. This year, Brouse said, most coaches would’ve picked Alabama as the favorite at the start of the week.
“The smart ones,” Brouse said, laughing.
A testament to Potter’s coaching prowess: The low round on his team today came from Hannah Collier, a young woman who struggled to break 90 only 15 months ago.
A teary-eyed Andrea Gaston came over to congratulate Potter while he was talking with the media. It’s the second time in three years that her USC team has lost a championship by one stroke. While those two losses sting Gaston’s program in a big way, the outcome both years (2010 and 2012) were great for the game.
It’s no longer a foregone conclusion that the best junior players will go to Duke, Arizona State, USC or UCLA. The wealth is spreading, and coaches will need to recruit even harder.
LSU finished a program-best third for the second consecutive year. The Tigers came up two strokes shy of Alabama. Virginia also finished a program-best fourth for the second consecutive year. The Cavaliers finished four back of the Tide, which is noteworthy given that a DQ after the first round cost Virginia five strokes. There’s no telling how the 25th-ranked Cavs would’ve handled a lead down the stretch, but as Portland Rosen said, they seem to rise to the occasion at big events.
Rosen had to win a 36-hole qualifier to even get into the lineup this week. And she likely got into that qualifier only because third-year starter Nicole Agnello has been out with a wrist injury since March. The sophomore from Sugar Land, Texas, shot 6-under 66 in the opening round, which is believed to be the best score from a fifth player in NCAA tournament history. Rosen finished T-8, making her an honorable-mention All-American.
That single performance might be the definition of parity.