College Women

Staying present may have advantages for USC

Defending champions, USC's Annie Park (left), Kyung Kim (center) and Karen Chung during a practice round at the 2014 women's NCAA Championship at Tulsa Country Club.
Defending champions, USC's Annie Park (left), Kyung Kim (center) and Karen Chung during a practice round at the 2014 women's NCAA Championship at Tulsa Country Club. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Monday, May 19, 2014

TULSA, Okla. – No need to worry about Annie Park living in the past. Chances are she can’t recall it.

“I don’t remember last year,” Park said when asked to compare her game’s current form to last year. She gave the same response when asked to compare this year’s NCAA track – Tulsa Country Club – to the UGA course in Athens. Those five consecutive victories USC posted to start the 2013-14 season … might as well have been five years ago. She barely remembers their regional qualifier from two weeks ago.

Is it like that for everyone on the Trojans team?

“I think it’s just me,” Park said, laughing.

USC coach Andrea Gaston loves to talk about staying in the present. Park’s utter fog might actually play to her advantage this week in windy Tulsa. Living up to last year’s incredible performance could crush a lesser player.

In 2013, Park overpowered the competition in her first semester of school, sweeping the postseason with victories at the conference, regional and national championships. She led USC to its third and most convincing NCAA title to date: a 21-stroke thrashing over Duke.

Her sophomore campaign hasn’t been as explosive (winning only once), but the team’s results are simply staggering. With a lineup that varied throughout the fall and spring, Gaston’s team won nine of 12 tournaments.

Four of the players from last year’s NCAA championship lineup are in Tulsa – Sophia Popov, Doris Chen, Kyung Kim and Park. Gaston said Karen Chung, the only newbie, struggled trying to manage golf and schoolwork in the fall, as many freshmen do. Chung’s 29 on the front nine in the final round of the SDSU Farms Invitational, however, secured a two-stroke victory and clinched her place in Tulsa.

“That was a huge statement in the necessity of having her in our lineup,” Gaston said.

The coach’s biggest challenge of the spring season was keeping her team fresh. Several tournament conflicts and academic demands enabled her to give other players a chance to step up. This is, without a doubt, the deepest lineup of Gaston’s 18-year career.

When asked to name their biggest threat this week, Gaston went down the rankings pointing first to second-ranked UCLA followed by Duke. She then mentioned Vanderbilt’s strong postseason run (blowouts at SECs and regionals).

Park chimed in with Arizona State, Washington and Stanford, three teams they’ve seen a lot of this year. And suddenly the list was considerably longer than recent years.

Still, the heavy favorite remains USC. Another 21-stroke blowout is unlikely, but nine tournament titles builds a strong case for a Trojans repeat. They have lost to only six top-25 teams all season.

“We want to embrace those conditions,” Gaston said of the high winds slated for Round 1. “That’s what separates the best teams.”

Park said in her second year of college golf she has learned how to better control her anger in competition. Off the course she has gotten better at time management.

“Just maturing,” Park said, “being more like an adult, a young lady.”

She entered USC hoping to major in marketing or entrepreneurship but took a few classes in the subject areas and quickly changed her mind.

Park recently declared philosophy as her major, and hopes to add a minor in human rights.

“Since Sean is a very philosophical thinker,” said Park, referring to longtime instructor Sean Foley.

The entire Trojans team entered this week feeling like a giant weight had been lifted. Final exams ended last Wednesday. Three players had finals proctored during regional competition, including Park.

“Three of them had their laptops at dinner,” said Gaston. “Thankfully we had that kind of pressure at regionals.”

The stress? All but forgotten.