2006: Devilish re-do
Like one of those heavy-duty firecrackers that flies high and then fizzles, this year’s NCAA Division I Women’s Championship turned into a dud.
Not to take away from Duke’s commanding victory, but this was supposed to be the year of parity. The year five or six teams headed into the final round with a legitimate shot at taking home the hardware.
Duke won by 10. That’s Disparity, with a capital D.
“The better they got, the worse we got,” said Arizona State coach Melissa Luellen, whose team led Duke by three after two rounds. “I know my team is capable of doing the same.
It’s just that capability and potential – and doing it – are two different things. That team is doing it.”
For the second consecutive year, Duke coach Dan Brooks kept quiet as his faithful five went about their business. There was more drama in the Blumenherst family’s game of Euchre in the hotel lobby than the last two days of competition.
“Duke was playing a different kind of golf than what we were playing,” said Southern California coach Andrea Gaston of the Blue Devils’ gutsy 1-under performance in a gusty third round. “It was a putting clinic out there.”
Duke took control of the leaderboard for the first time at 3:15 p.m. on Day 3 and never let go, steadily building its lead to 13 strokes heading into the final round. By the time the Blue Devils made the turn in the final round, it was merely a race for second between Southern Cal and Pepperdine.
Duke, led by freshman Jennie Lee’s 1-under 71, shot 3-over 291 May 27 for a 15-over 1,167 total at Ohio State’s revamped Scarlet Course. Lee carried a 74.6 average into the tournament and played even-par over four days in Columbus. The 10.6 shots Lee cut off her average for the week equaled Duke’s 10-shot margin of victory.
Southern Cal posted the final day’s low round, an even-par 288, but never really threatened. Pepperdine finished third, 20 strokes back.
Only the individual race added dramatic flair to an otherwise predictable conclusion. As many as five players were in the hunt on the last nine holes, but USC’s Dewi Schreefel – not the Trojan anyone expected to win – walked away with the title. Golfweek’s 53rd-ranked player birdied three of the last five holes to pull away with a closing 3-under 69 and win by two strokes over Lee.
Duke collected its fourth NCAA Championship, giving Brooks one more ring than that Krzyzewski fellow. It also marks the first time a team has won back-to-back titles since Arizona State in 1997-98.
“Honestly, there was a time maybe when the thought crossed my mind to turn pro,” said Duke senior Liz Janangelo, “but feeling like this and being a part of such a great team just washes all that away.”
Speaking of happy endings, Gaston and her family left Columbus smiling for different reasons.
The morning of the opening round, Gaston received word that her 84-year-old father was being taken from the Columbus airport to a nearby hospital. Alfred Gaston took a red-eye flight from Los Angeles Monday evening and suffered a heart attack an hour before landing.
“I wasn’t able to go in and be with him until close to 11 a.m.,” said Gaston. “They had to sedate him a little bit. Finally, when he saw that I was there, he just felt so bad because he didn’t want to take away from the moment. I said ‘Well, we’ll go out for you, Dad.’ ”
The fifth-ranked Trojans, fresh off their Central Regional victory, led Arizona State
by one shot after their opening 3-over 291, giving Gaston the perfect pick-me-up news to take back to dad. Her father steadily improved during the course of the tournament and was able to ride around in a cart to watch the final round.
“We were just all in shock,” said second-ranked Irene Cho, the only remaining member of USC’s 2003 NCAA Championship team. “Everything happens for a reason, and I wanted to play extra hard for her.”
The refurbished Scarlet Course demanded extra effort from every team, as conditions grew tougher each round. More than one coach used the phrase “U.S. Open setup” when describing the renovated layout. Buckeye alum Jack Nicklaus hit the first tee shot May 20 after his design team completed the $4.2 million project. Bunkers were deepened, greens were enlarged, yards were added. Not a single hole of the Alister MacKenzie design was left untouched.
And as the wind and rain rolled into town, the nation’s best separated themselves from a frustrated field.
“Good players like adversity, so whenever it’s windy or the course is long or the course is a tough, championship course, the better players are going to like that,” Brooks said heading into the final round. “We like that.”
There has been no shortage of talent in Durham in recent years. Brooks’ teams come to the NCAAs as the undisputed favorites more times than not. That doesn’t mean, however, that past Blue Devil squads haven’t had their share of disputes.
But that was the past. This year’s fearless five – Duke’s rosters the past two seasons have consisted of five players – stuck together. Just compare the celebrations.
Last year in Sunriver, Ore., a few nonchalant hugs on the 18th green and the obligatory trophy pose comprised the Blue Devils’ ho-hum celebration.
This year, Janangelo and junior Anna Grzebien drenched Brooks from behind with an oversized bucket of water to get things started. Top-ranked Amanda Blumenherst then ran over to give Lee, the surprise freshman standout of the week, a giant bear hug. As the Blue Devils later stood arm in arm to pose for photographers, Janangelo joked that the team routinely walked around campus together in Rockette-like formation.
They quoted lines from the movie “Wedding Crashers” for motivation and belted out Kelly Clarkson melodies into their McDonald’s ice cream cones in the team van. More than once Brooks praised his team’s chemistry, noting in his acceptance speech that it’s possible to win not playing as a team, but not nearly as fun.
“They really came together as a team this season,” said Brooks. “They were fighting for each other and I think that’s why we played so well. Not to take away from anything last year, we had a great time, but I really think we played more as a unit out there.”
Brooks became the winningest coach in NCAA Division I Women’s golf history earlier this season and now owns 95 career titles. The veteran coach of 22 years isn’t about impassioned Knute Rockne-style speeches or rah-rah moments in the team huddle. Brooks says he’s anything but a “my way or the highway” type coach.
“I love the way he operates,” said sophomore Jennifer Pandolfi. “What does he tell us? Everything that’s right.”
Surely Duke University is hoping the success of its women’s golf team will “right” some of the negative press that has surrounded its campus since three members of the men’s lacrosse team were charged with raping an escort service dancer hired to entertain at a team party in March. Brooks says the subject never came up and didn’t impact his team, but the ripple effects were evident.
From helicopters to protests to around-the-clock media, Duke athletes couldn’t escape the dark cloud that hovered over their campus.
“Any national championship is a great one,” Grezebien said. “With all that has happened this year at Duke, hopefully this will go to reclaiming our name as a university.”
As the team struck a pose off the 18th green, players urged Brooks to get into the picture. He hesitated after being soaked to the bone. Blumenherst told her coach it looked like he was in a wet collared-shirt contest.
It would’ve been Brooks’ toughest competition of the day.