Washington wins wildly dramatic NCAA Championship over Stanford

Washington’s Ying Luo, Charlotte Thomas, Wenyung Keh and Sarah Rhee celebrate winning the 2016 NCAA Championship.

Washington wins wildly dramatic NCAA Championship over Stanford

Women

Washington wins wildly dramatic NCAA Championship over Stanford

EUGENE, Ore. – Somehow it got even better than last year.

Stanford was there again, clutch shots were executed and the repeat happened. Only not how you may think.

This time Washington, a Pac-12 team ranked outside the top 10, just like the 2015 national champion Cardinal group, felt the magic – and there was a lot of it. For the second straight day, an incredible hole out for the Huskies ultimately proved the turning point at Eugene Country Club.

On Tuesday evening, it was freshman Sarah Rhee holing a bunker shot for birdie on the first extra hole of her match, essentially dashing No. 1 seed UCLA’s hopes in the semifinals. The next day, the change wasn’t as immediate but maybe more dramatic.

Senior Ying Luo, 1 up in her match against Casey Danielson, faced some 61 yards for her third shot on the par-4 18th. If she could hold off the Cardinal junior, the Huskies chances at victory would jump to near-lock status.

At that point, a difficult pitch over a ridge to a back pin needed to be executed precisely for a key par. She didn’t get the up-and-down.

She holed her wedge shot instead.

“It’s quite a tricky pitch shot and you have to land it perfectly on the slope,” Luo said. “I couldn’t believe it went in.”

After Luo decisively closed out that match, the opposing coach could only admire in awe.

“It almost seems like there was divine intervention for them with yesterday and today,” said Anne Walker, Stanford’s head coach.

To her point: somehow, yet again, somebody predicted a key pitch shot to drop.

Washington Huskies celebrate their win over UCLA during the semifinals of the NCAA Women's Championship.

Washington Huskies used a bunker hole-out against UCLA to reach the finals of the NCAA Women’s Championship.

On Tuesday, Washington freshman Wenyung Keh, who defeated Sierra Kersten 4 and 3 in the final, felt Rhee was going to hole her bunker shot. In the finals? Andrea VanderLende, Washington’s associate head coach, walking with Luo, offered the thought directly.

“I told her you can make this shot,” VanderLande said. “She walked back and said, ‘I want to be like Sarah.’ “

Oh boy, that was somehow just the start of everything. Play would continue for nearly another HOUR after that.

What happened in the meantime? Oh, not much.

Freshman Julianne Alvarez lost a dormie 3-up lead, two matches were in playoffs simultaneously and two more epic wedge shots – Alvarez knocked an 81-yard shot to 18 inches to save par on the first extra hole (No. 10) and then pitched up to within inches for another par on the second (No. 18) – were needed before everything was decided.

Then there was the mystery of when Washington actually won. Alvarez had been prone to some entertaining freshman mistakes this week. First, an alarm fiasco on Friday, and then beginning to go out toward the green and celebrate (twice!) for Rhee, who lost to Mariah Stackhouse in 20 holes Wednesday, before her semifinal match was officially over Tuesday.

As she stood on the 17th hole on Wednesday, 2 up in her match against Lauren Kim, Alvarez started celebrating, mistakenly believing that Washington had won the championship.

Although this one wasn’t her fault, as she and head coach Mary Lou Mulflur were told that by a TV personnel walking with them.

“She came running into my arms and jumping around,” Mulflur said. “And then it’s like, wait, ‘Are you sure?’ “

Good that she asked, because it wasn’t done. Alvarez would in fact play three-and-a-half more holes before she finished. The final three of those were with her forearms fully tingling, “an ethereal, surreal experience,” as nerves and adrenaline mixed together. It could’ve ended at 18 in regulation, as Alvarez had two putts from 35 feet to win her match and the national championship. But she left her first one six feet short and lipped out her remaining putt to win.

On to the playoff holes and the tingling and those two more sensational wedge shots. And then confusion.

When Kim’s 15-foot par putt on the second extra hole missed right – “the speed was a little off and I think I could have aimed more inside the hole,” Kim said – giving the Huskies the national title, they weren’t even sure.

Keh audibly asked, “Did we just win?” Senior Charlotte Thomas thought Alvarez still had a 3-4 footer to hole. And Mulflur froze, on account of the earlier mistake.

“I stopped and paused in my mind for a moment,” Mulflur said, “I wanted to make sure, sure it was over.”

It was this time around, as Washington triumphed, 3-2. The Huskies were national champions for the first time in school history, doing so with a three-freshmen, two-senior lineup at the NCAA Championship, and a five-freshmen, two-senior roster as a whole.

Washington’s Ying Luo, Charlotte Thomas, Wenyung Keh and Sarah Rhee celebrate winning the 2016 NCAA Championship.

Washington’s Ying Luo, Charlotte Thomas, Wenyung Keh and Sarah Rhee celebrate winning the 2016 NCAA Championship.

If it wasn’t the most improbable victory in NCAA Championship history, it was up there. Mulflur, in her 33rd year at Washington, had never come particularly close to a national championship before this year.

Then there was the specter of that odd lineup construction, which Mulflur said Tuesday took some time to gel but that the chemistry proved remarkably strong come spring time.

Still, Mulflur doesn’t often stick to the conventional methods. The Huskies went on two retreats (one fall, one spring) this year, and Mulflur likes her players to be uncomfortable (Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable is the team motto of 2015-16).

Before the start of the first spring tournament, the Regional Challenge at Palos Verdes, Calif., this season, Mulflur brought her team out for a fun 18 holes at Astoria Golf and Country Club in Warrenton, Ore. Except…

“We told them on the first tee, this is the first round of qualifying for the spring,” Mulflur said. “They had no idea until right then.”

That’s how it goes on a Mulflur squad. By the way, the Huskies won that first spring tournament.

While Washington only won once more the remainder of the spring before NCAAs, the confidence of that victory carried over throughout.

But before 2014-15, when the Huskies rose to No. 1 in the rankings and held there throughout the spring despite an NCAA Championship quarterfinal loss to USC, a national championship didn’t appear in the cards.

The freshmen aspect is much talked about, but to truly appreciate the growth, look to the seniors.

Thomas, of Surrey, England, said, as a freshman, she didn’t even know what the NCAA Championship was until halfway through the fall. Luo, arriving from Shenzhen, China, barely knew much of anything about the United States, let alone college golf’s nuances, when she arrived four years ago.

“I picked her up in the airport in Seattle and I took her into campus via Highway 99,” Mulflur said. “You’re kind of close to the water, and the city’s to the right. I looked across at her, and she’s just grinning from ear to ear, and she just goes, ‘I can’t believe I’m finally here.’ “

Now look at those two. While Thomas lost her match, 2 and 1, to Shannon Aubert, she was a senior leader on the squad, and Luo’s heroics speak for themselves.

For Mulflur, the win was a nice way to circle things back. It wasn’t the first time she had won at Eugene Country Club. That came at, as she recalls, the 1967 Oregon Pee-Wee Junior Girls, where she shot 72 in nine holes to earn medalist honors.

“I called my dad up and I said, ‘I think I’m in trouble, somebody called me a medalist,’ ” Mulflur said. “I had no idea what it was.”

Nearly a half-century later, she has some national championship hardware to add to her Eugene collection.

Washington's Mary Lou Mulflur

Washington’s Mary Lou Mulflur

The Huskies have been taking part in “car karaoke” all week, (see more on that here), and Tuesday night’s rendition was of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”

It’s Mulflur’s turn to perform Wednesday night. The team said that they’ve already decided the song for her: “We Are The Champions.”

“I think that’s probably a good call,” Mulflur said.

It took an extra hour to be sure, but they can sing it now. We Are The Champions, indeed.

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