STILLWATER, Okla. – Andrea Gaston was always prepared.
When USC’s 22nd-year head coach learned Robynn Ree and Muni He, her two best players, would be going to LPGA Q-School in late 2017, she was already planning for the aftermath.
“I pretty much said, ‘They’re not going to be back,’ ” Gaston said. “Once I got into that frame of mind that we needed to make sure we could regroup in January, the biggest message I had to get to the three girls on the team was you’ve got work to do, let’s just keep pressing on.”
Indeed, there were just three players on the squad when Ree and He ended up turning pro mid-season. But Gaston brought in three freshmen reinforcements (and a sophomore transfer) for the spring to keep a full and eligible roster.
It was a risky experiment, but it came out beautifully.
A season after reaching the semifinals at the NCAA Women’s Championship, USC somehow reached that stage again – this time minus those two stars.
Overall, the Trojans won three times in the spring, finished second at Pac-12s and were on the cusp of a national championship before falling to Alabama, 3-1-1, in Tuesday afternoon’s semifinal at Karsten Creek Golf Club.
There’s no hardware coming, but USC – which started four freshmen and a sophomore at nationals – would likely win the award for most resilient team of the spring.
“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Gaston said. “This was an incredible year, especially with our baby Trojans.”
How’d they do it?
Well, it’s not like USC was scrambling to find talent at the bottom of the barrel when it came to its midseason freshmen. Jennifer Chang was one of the top prospects in the U.S. and a finalist at the 2017 U.S. Girls’ Junior.
Gabi Ruffels was a junior golfer of note in Australia and is the daughter of former pro tennis player Ray Ruffels. (Her older brother, Ryan, is a pro golfer as well.) Amelia Garvey flew under the radar out of New Zealand, but her talent leaps off the page.
Garvey is the long-hitter of the group, and it’s always been this way. A round with Lydia Ko when the future World No. 1 was around age 13 and Garvey roughly 9 saw the junior pound the ball up there with Ko and sometimes past her.
Impressed by Garvey’s length, Ko signed a ball for her companion and addressed it, “To Happy Gilmore.” Chang quipped that her driver only goes about as far as her teammate’s hybrid.
“It’s insane how far she hits it. And we’re just like, ‘Hi, we’re way back here.’ ” Chang said, laughing.
Chang had intended on finishing high school a semester early anyway, so coming on in the spring rather than the following fall was seamless. Ruffels said she graduated high school last October, which made her joining in the spring a cinch as well.
Garvey was the only situation that caused problems. She didn’t graduate high school until December and then it took weeks for her transcripts and test scores to come through and make her NCAA eligible.
It became unclear if she would be able to make it in time to play in the spring. But she was officially cleared on Jan. 16 and made it out to USC by the end of the month.
Roughly a week later, she was with the team for its spring opener. Her start a few weeks after the semester began didn’t end up being a huge deal.
“She still has a good GPA,” Ruffels joked.
While that was fine, the Trojans struggled to a 10th-place showing in their first event, the Northrop Grumman Challenge, with the revamped roster. Sophomore Allisen Corpuz had figured the team was in for a decent spring at best, and that performance didn’t halt any of those concerns. Chang had wondered as well, How are we going to perform?
Yet, Gaston’s belief didn’t drop.
“I like the wake-up calls to let them know it’s not going to be easy,” Gaston said. “I never led them to believe that I’ve had any doubt that we’d be here in May.”
The next event, her Trojans finished second. Then came three straight wins.
Aside from talent, this group simply gelled quickly. There were some prior relationships – Ruffels and Garvey had known each other – but Chang hadn’t met either of her fellow incoming freshmen. It didn’t matter.
“We just clicked right away,” Chang said.
All three have been roommates this spring and have let the good times roll. It helps that none are afraid of putting themselves in humorous situations, especially Garvey.
The 17-year-old got a tattoo on her left forearm right before she left for USC. The ink is a depiction of two dots, followed by a vertical line and another dot. Garvey says the dots are meant to represent her and her two sisters, with her being the end dot (the youngest).
She’s not sure what the line is for, only that it’s part of a tattoo her two sisters have some form of as well.
“They forced me to get (the tattoo) basically,” Garvey said. “And it hurt A LOT.”
Alyaa Abdulghany, the only starting freshman at NCAAs who’s been on the team the whole season, has also played a crucial role this campaign. The same goes for Corpuz, as she’s the one they can claim as a wily veteran in the group.
“They call me the grandma of the team because now I’m officially a junior,” Corpuz said, with a laugh.
The group also thrived on the fact there was no superstar that would allow it to coast. The Trojans had to fight as a group, as no one player could be relied upon to blitz the competition each time.
Gaston has won three national championships at USC. But after hearing the murmurs of doubt about what her new-look squad could do, she puts the 2018 spring high in the satisfaction department.
“I know there’s people who didn’t think we’d ever be here,” Gaston said. “I’d chalk this up as one of the best years.”