With two stars possibly leaving for pros, USC ready with spring reinforcements

Jennifer Chang (David Cannon/Getty Images)

With two stars possibly leaving for pros, USC ready with spring reinforcements

Women

With two stars possibly leaving for pros, USC ready with spring reinforcements

No matter how 2017 ends, USC coach Andrea Gaston is prepared. With two star players in the final stage of LPGA Q-School later this month, Gaston signed three players last week who will begin their Trojan careers in January.

USC competed this fall, winning twice, with a roster of five that included a walk-on from Siena College. With Muni He and Robynn Ree vying for a tour card in several weeks – both fully capable of finishing in the top 20 as USC’s Karen Chung did last year – Gaston’s reinforcements will arrive at a crucial time. (Players must turn professional immediately to accept a tour card.)

Jennifer Chang of Cary, N.C., one of the nation’s top recruits, told Gaston of her plans to graduate early long before the coach knew that two of her players were headed to Q-School. Gabriela Ruffels (Australia) and Amelia Garvey (New Zealand) will finish high school by the end of 2017 as their summer months are January and February. Rather than take a break, however, they’ll roll right into college a world away, with classes starting in Los Angeles on Jan. 8.

“What I wanted to do was originally graduate high school early and then just spend the last semester just practicing golf, just playing tournaments,” said Chang, who was a finalist at the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior. “I talked to Coach Gaston about that, and she gave me the option to come to school early. I hadn’t even thought about it, but then she told me, and it was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should.’ And I talked it out with my parents and we thought it was the best decision to go in the spring.”

The key, Gaston said, will be to help the newcomers settle into a routine and feel comfortable as quickly as possible.

Gaston, now in her 22nd year as head coach at Southern Cal, first brought in a scholarship player midway through the year in 2013.

“We had had five players in the fall, added Annie Park in the spring and looked what happened,” said Gaston.

The Trojans won the NCAA Championship that year, with Park sweeping the postseason.

USC also signed Malia Nam from Kailua, Hawaii, last week but she’ll wait to start school in the fall of 2018.

He, a sophomore, said she will “most likely” turn professional at Q-School but that all options are still on the table. The idea that the LPGA has plans to overhaul its qualifying system, reportedly in 2018, factored into her decision to sign up this year.

With 100,000 followers on Instagram, He will have any easier time than most securing sponsor exemptions at the next level. She’s already playing in Dubai next month on the Ladies European Tour for a second time.

2017 has been a life-changing year for Gaston, a trying but triumphant one to be sure. Last May, two days after USC lost to Northwestern in the semifinal of the NCAA Championship, Gaston flew back to California to have surgery for uterine cancer. Doctors told her to take it easy for the next six to eight weeks. When school started back up at the end of summer, Gaston admits she was a bit overwhelmed.

“It put perspective on how hard we work as coaches,” she said. “When you come to a standstill like that, I thought ‘How in the world have I been managing this?’ ”

Gaston, who has led the Trojans to three NCAA team titles and five individual championships, has learned not to put value on results. She’s a competitive person to be sure, but she’s most interested in the process of helping student-athletes transition into responsible, accountable adults.

She’s a big advocate of education and staying four years to earn a diploma. But when it comes to which players actually commit to USC and how long they stay, Gaston’s outlook is ultimately rooted in faith.

“The kids that are here are supposed to be here,” she said, “and the ones that aren’t, aren’t… You have to very patient with all of this – so that you can hopefully make the best decision.”

— Kevin Casey contributed

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