Duke qualifies for nationals with roster of four

Duke head coach Dan Brooks hugs junior Lindy Duncan.

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1Alison LeeUCLA  69.96 
2Stephanie MeadowAlabama  70.17 
3Gaby LopezArkansas  70.29 
4Noemi JimenezArizona St  70.31 
5Celine BoutierDuke  70.40 

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Earlier this week Dan Brooks noted that Duke had done a lot of special things with four players, including win. Those teams, however, were chock-full of first-team All-Americans and future LPGA cardholders. Simply put: They had swagger.

This Duke team failed to advance to the NCAA Championship for only the second time in school history last year with five players. Playing with four would be a tall task.

“I don’t think the team was quite as upset as they needed to be,” said Golfweek’s top-ranked Lindy Duncan of last year’s failure to advance. “At the beginning of this year we worked through some of that and got a little bit of a fire back in us, and that’s been huge.”

That desire came in handy this week when sophomore Alejandra Cangrejo injured her elbow on the 12th hole Thursday and was forced to withdraw. The Blue Devils played all three rounds with only four players, meaning every stroke counted.

Duke posted a critical round on Friday, moving up six notches on the leaderboard to fifth place. They’d need that cushion in the final round, where they finished tied for sixth with Arizona State and Michigan State. Duncan birdied her last hole to shoot 71.

“I think what Duke did is really a testament to how tough those kids are and how talented they are,” said Texas coach Martha Richards, who played with four players at the NCAA Championship when she was at Vanderbilt. “When we played in nationals in 2004 with just four it was difficult … eight years later it’s a lot tougher. There is a lot more depth.”

Cangrejo, runner-up at the ACC Championship, has the third-best stroke average on Duke’s team. She first broke her right elbow at age 6 and has been bothered by it ever since. Brooks only carries six players on his roster, and there’s a substantial gap between the top five and freshman Irene Jung. It’s uncertain if Cangrejo will be able to return to the lineup in time for the NCAA Championship May 22-25 in Franklin, Tenn.

While Duncan has been a model of consistency for Duke – never finishing outside the top 8 – junior Courtney Ellenbogen is on more of a roller coaster. The once stout junior player has been on a wild ride off the tee the last few years. She couldn’t have picked a better time to tie her season-low 72 than on Friday. She followed it up with a 74.

“When her back’s against the wall and she really wants to fight, she’s really, really good,” Brooks said.

Overall, Brooks said, patience got his team through this week. That’s something Duncan has been working on for years. This season, she has showed more maturity on the golf course, keeping more of an even temper when things aren’t going well.

“Even when I was a little girl my mom would tell me if you don’t work on this you’re never going to be what you want to be,” Duncan said.

At the U.S. Women’s Open last year at The Broadmoor, Duncan realized her ball-striking was on par with LPGA players but learned her short game needed work. She returned to Durham and spent serious time on the putting green. That, coupled with a better attitude, has paid dividends. She has won four times this season.

There were long post-round talks and worried faces along the way, but Duke showed a lot of heart.

It was, as Brooks might say, something special.

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