Vandy stays above the fray
There are few moments in life more satisfying than proving a critic wrong. Being told you are not capable of accomplishing something, reading newspaper clippings that say you’re in way over your head can create an inner force that otherwise may not have been tapped.
Vanderbilt showed exactly that kind of fortitude last week at the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship.
Two weeks ago the Commodores learned that their top player, sophomore May Wood, was academically ineligible. Vanderbilt had prepared stringently all season for the NCAA Championship, and seven days prior to the first round, news broke that Wood would not make the journey to Alabama. Without a sixth player on the roster (junior Joni Gossett left the team before the season for unspecified personal reasons), coach Martha Freitag’s only option was to make the trip to Grand National’s Lake Course with four players – two seniors and two freshmen – and without the luxury of a throw-away score.
Every swing counts.
Wood was many things for the Commodores.
She was a major factor in all five of Vanderbilt’s victories this season, including the SEC Championship and the NCAA Central Regional. She was co-SEC Player of the Year with Auburn freshman Nicole Hage. She was 11th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. She was 6-foot-1, had better than girl-next-door looks and hit the ball 300 yards with ease.
But there were things Wood wasn’t for the Commodores. She wasn’t the heart and soul of the team. She wasn’t the leader. She wasn’t bigger than the team. And she let her team down when it needed her most.
“I don’t care how good you are,” senior Sarah Jacobs said in her Southern drawl. “One person doesn’t make the team.”
After a fifth-place finish – the best NCAA showing in school history – Vandy’s Fearless Foursome proved that, despite what critics said, it didn’t need Wood for the team to be competitive. Finishing fifth with four proved more than finishing fourth with five ever would have. Vanderbilt shot 298-284-302-296 for a 28-over-par 1,180 total. Wood may have helped the Commodores, she may not have. No one can predict how she would have played. No one can measure how the other four would have played if Wood had been in the lineup.
First-round jitters might have caused Vandy to shoot a poor opening round; pure heart caused it to rebound the next day and compete with the top two teams in the country. In that second round, Vanderbilt was paired with top-ranked Duke and second-ranked UCLA. On a steamy Alabama afternoon, the Commodores shot 4-under 284 to stand alone in third place midway through the championship. The Blue Devils shot 284 and the Bruins shot 283, each with the luxury of a fifth player. Duke threw away a 73, UCLA threw away a 75. Vanderbilt threw away nothing, and no one on the squad shot higher than 72.
“You shouldn’t play like you’re expecting someone else to cover for you and your score,” Freitag said. “Play like you’re trying to play and win as an individual. If you do that, you’ll help the team be successful.”
The philosophy worked. With her nuptials only a week away, Jacobs coolly led the Commodores and shot 1-under 287 to tie for sixth individually. She could have packed it in and called it a career, but she fought through putting woes, grinded over every 5-footer and was the model of consistency. Only a third-round 75 kept her from contending in the individual race. Fellow senior Courtney Wood (no relation to May) tied for 37th at 296 and played well until she tired in the final round and shot 77. Freshmen Chris Brady and Kristen Svicarovich handled the obstacles with relative ease, tying for 28th and 69th respectively. More could not have been expected from these two, the bright future of Vanderbilt golf.
“The team felt like everyone was patting them on the head and feeling sorry for them,” Freitag said. “They were tired of hearing everybody say May is the crown jewel of the program.”
Instead, Vanderbilt discovered that all along it had four other diamonds in the rough. Diamonds who laughed together, cried together, lost together and won together.
Fitting that Jacobs – perhaps the brightest diamond of them all – made par on the 72nd hole to end the tournament for Vanderbilt. She and Freitag embraced, then looked at each other not knowing whether to feel relieved that the pressure was off or sad that the tournament was over. Four years ago, Jacobs and Freitag were freshmen together, of sorts. When Freitag took over the program, Jacobs was the only freshman Freitag inherited (Courtney Wood transferred a year later from Texas Christian). The two had been together through all the ups and the downs, and this was their finest hour.
“She’s it for me,” Jacobs said. “I couldn’t imagine playing under anybody else. She’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. She didn’t recruit me, but I’m hers. I will always be grateful for all the things she has taught me.”
Afterward, passers-by stopped to congratulate Vanderbilt on its gutsy performance. Members of the “Fearless Foursome” politely said thanks and returned smiles that were almost as big as their hearts. Even still, the Commodores were the only ones who thought they underachieved. With or without May Wood, they came to take home a national championship, and each was a touch disappointed that it didn’t happen.
“We talked all spring about character, competitiveness and composure,” Freitag said. “These four couldn’t be better at those three areas.
“The unfortunate part for us is that we’ll never know what would have happened if we had May.”
We do know what happened without her.
On this character-building week in Alabama, that was good enough.