FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Laura Ianello describes the year that followed Arizona’s NCAA Championship victory as “happy chaos.”
That probably describes much of her life in general this time of year, too. Husband Jeff is in London this week. Last year, Laura was on the road 112 nights. She estimates that Jeff, executive vice president at SeatGeek and Laura’s No. 1 supporter, was probably away from home 150 nights. He flew 400,000 miles on American Airlines last year.
It’s full throttle every which way in the Ianello family.
“I think our families know that February to May is mayhem,” Laura said from this year’s NCAA Championship at the Blessings Golf Club in Arkansas. “It’s madness.”
There’s an adorable video from last year’s NCAA title run in Stillwater, Okla., that shows the Ianello’s two girls – Natalie and Joanna – standing directly in the front of the TV as mom is being interviewed.
“Long day of golf tomorrow,” Laura says. “I want to get these girls in bed. I want to get them fed.”
Five-year-old Natalie turns around and says “Oh, she’s talking about us!”
Jeff flew out to Oklahoma for the championship match but when Laura came home to Arizona, he’d gone on another business trip. She waited until a week had passed before she watched a recording of their victory. After she put the kids to bed, Laura binged the Golf Channel coverage from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. for two nights in a row.
She still cries anytime she sees footage or photographs from that final round. But she also gets a little annoyed.
Ianello felt the announcers didn’t give the Wildcats a chance against Alabama during the first hour of coverage.
She gets tired of hearing it constantly being described as a “Cinderella story.” And why does everyone always have to point out that they were the eighth seed, anyway?
“Can’t you just say the Arizona Wildcats?” she asked. “Do you really have to add the eighth seed? We were ranked ninth in the country last year. We weren’t No. 1, but we were still a helluva good team.”
Ianello gets similarly fired up when talking about senior Bianca Pagdanganan, one of golf’s true power players that she feels often gets overlooked. Ianello calls her one of the fiercest competitors she’s ever met. She carries the ball 265 to 270 yards off the tee. At last year’s NCAAs, Pagdanganan hit a 6-iron out of a divot on the 72nd hole of stroke play to reach the closing par-5 in two. She drained a curling 25-foot putt for eagle that sent Arizona into a playoff for the last spot in match play.
“I want to shout it from the clouds just how amazing she is,” said Ianello, who was disappointed that Pagdanganan didn’t get invited to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. “In my mind, she’s just as good as (Jennifer) Kupcho or (Maria) Fassi, who get all the attention.”
Ianello says what she feels. It’s one of the traits Pagdanganan appreciates the most about her coach, even when she’s strict. Ianello, a former standout player at Arizona, knows when to push and how to keep everyone loose when it counts.
“She can connect and relate to everyone around her,” said Denver coach Lindsay Kuhle, who looks at Ianello like a big sister. “She just makes people feel good.”
There’s a deep passion to Ianello’s approach. She cares, and like many working moms, especially those who travel, gets frustrated that she can’t be in two places at once.
“There are so many times I’m like ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’ ” Ianello said from her golf cart at the Blessings. “I should be there for my kids.”
And then she looked turned her head toward the 13th tee and motioned to her Arizona team.
“But these are my kids too,” she said.
Not long after Arizona won the NCAA title, associate coach Derek Radley took the head coaching job at Oregon.
Ianello said it felt like a death in the family.
“I was so panicked of ‘How am I going to coach without him?’” she said. “I felt desperation.”
Ianello had panic attack last summer at the U.S. Girls’ Junior. She hadn’t seen her own daughters in 11 days and forgot about her anniversary while caddying on the LPGA with Pagdanganan. She’d let Radley take on the lion’s share of the recruiting in previous years and felt overwhelmed by the fact that she needed to sign four players for 2019.
“This summer was the worst time in my life,” she said wiping away tears. “I was not a mom, and I felt so guilty about it.”
A deep-seated faith got her through it as well as the hiring of assistant coach Justin Bubser.
The Wildcats come into this week ranked eighth in the country. Four players from last year’s team are back. Gigi Stoll turned professional mid-year. Ianello easily found peace with that though because even last year it was tough for Stoll stay.
Ianello said her new freshman, Ya-Chun Chang, nicknamed “Money,” has the mind of a professional at the ripe old age of 18. Chang posted a 4.0 GPA this spring.
“She’s so mature,” Ianello said.
Haley Moore sunk the winning putt for Arizona. Moore became an instant celebrity around town, Ianello said, and the added attention gave the shy player a bit of anxiety.
Playing at the Augusta National Women’s Amateur last month, where she also got a great deal of attention, helped her grow in confidence. Moore turned 20 last November and graduated with a degree in sports and society last weekend.
“She’s a different human being from a year ago,” Laura said.
Moore, who plans to turn professional next week and compete on the Cactus Tour, believes her experience on Augusta National’s greens will help at the Blessings, where it’s quick and undulating.
“Having the pressure of having to make a cut to even play at Augusta helped me to stay patient out there,” said Moore. “It will even help me here because we want to try to make it all the way again. We were patient and just let it all happen.”
The Wildcats are wearing orange ribbons on their hats this week in support of Laura’s nephew, Jackson, who is fighting leukemia.
Kuhle said that last month during the ANWA, Laura flew up to Indianapolis from Atlanta to see Jackson on Friday and got back at midnight to go watch Moore play in Saturday’s final round at Augusta.
“That right there perfectly describes what Laura does for other people,” said Kuhle.
During the final round of regionals last week, Laura got word that Jackson’s chemotherapy treatments were working. It was a moment of peace in the midst of a fight.