NCAA Women’s Championship preview
When: May 19-22
Where: Caves Valley Golf Club, Owings Mills, Md.
Who: Fourteen of the top 15 teams in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, and 24 of the top 46.
Defending champion: USC; Azahara Munoz, Arizona State
Scoop: No matter how you slice it, the national championship comes down to three teams – No. 1 Arizona State, No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 USC. The Sun Devils are peaking at the right time with back-to-back wins at the Pac-10 Conference Championship and NCAA West Regional. Super freshman Carlota Ciganda won both titles individually. Juliana Murcia has filled in nicely and senior Azahara Munoz, the defending national champ, is always solid. If any more proof was needed that Arizona State is the favorite, remember this: The Sun Devils won the Fall Preview at Caves Valley by eight shots.
The Bruins are the deepest team in college golf, with their starting five all ranked in the top 50. Sophomore Maria Jose Uribe and freshman Stephanie Kono finished 1-2 at the Central Regional. Get senior Tiffany Joh on point (T-41 at Central Regional) and UCLA gets even stronger.
The Trojans are clearly the third-best team, though depth is an issue. If freshman Jennifer Song, sophomore Lizette Salas and junior Belen Mozo heat it up, USC can win.
Will make a run at the top 3: Purdue has gotten better throughout the year. The Boilermakers have national Player of the Year candidate Maria Hernandez, who led Purdue to the Big Ten title en route to picking up the individual medal. Maude-Aimee LeBlanc is also a formidable factor. The sophomore from Quebec led the Boilermakers to a runner-up showing at the Central Regional, while finishing fourth as an individual.
Oklahoma State has plenty of experience and loads of talent. The Cowgirls won the Ping/ASU Invitational – topping ASU, UCLA, USC and Purdue – and the Big 12 Conference Championship. Freshmen Caroline Hedwall and Caroline Masson, and senior Pernilla Lindberg give Oklahoma State plenty of firepower. However, the Cowgirls had a hiccup at the Central Regional, closing with a 312 to finish fourth.
Next best bet: The loose bunch at Denver plays with nothing to lose. The Pioneers made up eight shots in the final round to with the East Regional by four shots. If seniors Dawn Shockley and Katie Kempter, and junior Stephanie Sherlock all click at the same time, Denver could contend.
Don’t forget about Duke, especially with seniors Amanda Blumenherst and Jennie Lee ending their historic careers at Caves Valley. Despite an inconsistent season, the Blue Devils have the talent to make some noise.
Going the wrong way: After a strong regular season, Virginia has hit a skid. The Cavs finished fifth at the ACC Championship and fourth at the East Regional, where they were the top seed. Pepperdine has also been struggling. Though the Waves freshmen have been good, sneaking into nationals with an eighth-place regional finish wasn’t how they planned to do it.
Feel-good story: Tulane, which features three freshmen and two sophomores, are riding a wave of momentum – pun intended. In their first year back since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Green Wave won the Conference USA title and cruised at the East Regional, finishing fourth.
Individually speaking: Carlota Ciganda is the hottest player in the field. The Arizona State freshman won the Pac-10 and West Regional title, and has four other top-10 finishes in her first semester at ASU. Another fantastic frosh, USC’s Jennifer Song, is also on a roll with a runner-up showing at the West Regional and the Pac-10 Championship. Keep an eye on Song’s teammate, Lizette Salas, too, who has finished outside the top 10 just once this season. Purdue senior Maria Hernandez has won five times in 2008-09, which is one more than anyone in Division I women’s golf.
Short shots: UC Irvine has followed the lead of Player of the Year candidate Jane Chin all the way to the NCAA Championship. . . . Need a sentimental story? After 16 years, North Carolina coach Sally Austin will call it quits after the national championship. . . . Alabama finished runner-up at the East Regional and is peaking at the right time. . . . In just its second year since being reinstated, Chattanooga is making its first national championship appearance. . . . A year after missing out on playing the NCAA Championship on its home course, New Mexico is in the field. . . . Central Florida senior Stephanie Connelly, who is playing as an individual, grew up 40 minutes from Caves Valley. . . . Texas is at the NCAA Championship for the second consecutive season under coach Martha Richards after missing the previous three seasons.
Number crunching: Oklahoma State and Purdue are the only two teams to win a tournament other than UCLA or Arizona State when the Bruins and Sun Devils are in the field. The Boilermakers won the Betsy Rawls Longhorn Invitational, and the Cowgirls won the Ping/ASU Invitational.
The NCAA Championship field in order of Golfweek/Sagarin Ranking:
1. Arizona State
4. Oklahoma State
5. Wake Forest
12. North Carolina
21. Michigan State
22. New Mexico
26. Ohio State
29. UC Irvine