DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The conclusion of the NCAA Division II Women’s Championship felt more like a trip to the water park than the end of a golf tournament. There wasn’t a dry eye Saturday afternoon among the Lynn University contingent after the Fighting Knights narrowly edged an equally emotional Nova Southeastern team.
There also wasn’t a cooler within reach of the Barry squad that wasn’t raided in order to properly douse individual champion Nancy Vergara.
“Amazing,” Vergara, a sophomore, said at the end of the day. “After a hot day, even better.”
The final round of the national championship was stifling amid the lush foliage that lines LPGA International’s Legends Course. Pressure was high, too, as defending champion Nova Southeastern led Lynn by a single shot entering the final round.
Vergara, the Venezuela native, trailed by one shot entering the final round, but shot 3-over 75 Saturday for a 3-over 291 total and a one-shot victory. She had to make a 6-foot putt at the last to do it.
Vergara sunk that putt, then ducked out of the way of the Nova-Lynn battle that had been swirling around her all day. Those two teams, both from South Florida, traded the lead all day. Each entered the national championship aware of the other. The two schools play in the Sunshine State Conference, and finished second and third, respectively, behind Florida Southern at the conference championship. Lynn then topped Nova at the NCAA South Regional on May 7, earning the program’s first regional title.
“That’s the beauty of being in the (Sunshine State Conference) and in this region,” Lynn head coach Danny Randolph said. “You don’t have to go anywhere to know who your competition is.”
• • •
• • •
Randolph kept a close eye on the leaderboard, updated every three holes, as the day wore on. He knew the key would be to outplay Nova over the last four holes. But both teams struggled down the stretch.
Live scoring showed that Lynn had a two-shot lead as Louise Manalo, the sophomore in Lynn’s anchor position, teed off at No. 18 beside Vergara and Nova’s Linnea Johansson. Manalo pulled a 3-wood, the same club she’d hit there all week, but left her tee shot behind a tree at the severe dogleg left. She had to punch out to the fairway before she was able to go for the green.
Lynn and Nova players, dressed in almost identical cobalt blue-and-white uniforms for the final round, stood to the side of the 18th green as Manalo three-putted. Johansson already had made her fourth consecutive bogey, but by that point it didn’t matter. Lynn dropped Manalo’s 79, turned in a final-round 305 and finished the tournament at 35-over 1,187, three shots ahead of Nova.
“In my heart, I knew I didn’t have to make it,” Manalo said of that last putt. “But I wanted to.”
Manalo was crucial in putting her team in a position for a final-round charge after opening the week 75-69-74. Ellen Chambers led the Fighting Knights in the final round with a 75 from the No. 5 spot. That’s evidence of the two keys Randolph used to explain this team’s success: depth and communication.
“I told myself I had to fight today,” said Chambers, an Australian. “I did that. Our team did that.”
Randolph followed Manolo off the 18th green, yet was unsure if his team had won. The word “unofficial” bounced around the Lynn huddle, then shrieks erupted when the victory was confirmed. Tears followed.
Lynn’s regional victory sent the team to the national finals for the first time since 2006, when the Fighting Knights finished third. This is the first national championship title since 1997, when Divisions II and III were combined. Lynn won the NAIA National Championship in 1995 and ’96.
As Randolph noted, this title puts the school from Boca Raton, Fla., on the map. It also goes a long way in the friendly rivalry Lynn keeps with Nova, a Fort Lauderdale-based school. The Sharks are a team with many targets on their back.
“We had been so close so many times against them,” Randolph said.
Randolph won’t graduate a single player from this year’s national title squad, which bodes well for next season’s title defense. Nova, which had won this championship for the past four years, loses only senior Abbey Gittings. Both teams are heavily international, and the Nova golf cart flew through LPGA International’s fairways trailing five flags, one for each of its players, who hail from Sweden, Wales, England, Mexico and Argentina.
Nova head coach Amanda Brown, who was presented with the Eaton Golf Pride WGCA Division II National Coach of the Year award the night before the final round, wasn’t watching the leaderboard during the final round. Instead, the coach preached patience and focus.
“I really did think that our experience and the level of talent on our team was going to see us through,” she said.
A runner-up finish isn’t likely to remove the target on Nova’s back, but it adds a layer to the storyline of Division II women’s golf. Lynn has established itself as yet another South Florida – and national – contender.