LAKE ELMO, MINN. — There’s no denying the NCAA Championship-level talent on hand this week at the ANNIKA Intercollegiate Presented by 3M.
Since its inception in 2014, the event has boasted the best field in women’s Div. I golf. But if you ask preseason No. 1 USC, this week’s competition at Royal Golf Club is no more difficult than one of its pre-tournament qualifiers.
“If you ask (Gabriela Ruffels), probably the biggest driver in her improvement is having to compete at home every week in qualifiers,” head coach Justin Silverstein said of his 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion.
Silverstein’s squad returns eight players – five of whom were Golfweek All-Americans – from last season’s team that won seven events. Just how good are the Trojans on paper?
Two of those All-Americans, Malia Nam (second team) and Amelia Garvey (honorable mention), didn’t qualify for the season opener.
“I wasn’t going to pick players for the first event except for Gaby and (Jennifer Chang), who I think earned exemptions,” explained Silverstein. “Other than that, you could’ve made a case for anyone to be exempt, so they might as well just play.”
USC held two qualifiers. Junior Alyaa Abdulghany won the first comfortably, while senior Aiko Leong won the second outright.
Abdulghany and Leong carried their qualifier momentum from Los Angeles to Minnesota, where they both sit T-4 at 4 under on the individual leaderboard, six shots behind Wake Forest freshman Rachel Kuehn who’s making her collegiate debut. Leong’s bogey-free 6-under 66 on Tuesday was the low round of the day. The Trojans shot 9 under as a team in the second round and currently sit six shots behind Kuehn and the Demon Deacons.
“Every round of qualifying is like a tournament with how good the team is,” said Leong. “I come out here and it’s not too uncomfortable because it’s similar to qualifying.”
“We like to compete at home and I think a lot of that carries over,” said Silverstein, who’s been with the school since 2013. “I know there are a lot of coaches that don’t think qualifying scores carry over, but I think if your qualifiers are competitive enough it definitely does.”
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His belief in qualifiers isn’t the only thing that separates the 33-year-old coach from his colleagues. The Trojans don’t have meetings, Silverstein hates them. They don’t set goals, and he’s “not a big captains guy.”
Why? Because the expectation is known: Win, a lot.
“I played for Rick LaRose at Arizona, who was not a team captain guy. He was the captain, that was his deal,” said Silverstein, followed by an impression of the iconic ‘I am the Captain now’ line from the movie Captain Phillips. “My biggest mentor is Chris Zambri and he’s not a big captains guy either.”
Before taking over the women’s program in July 2018, Silverstein was an assistant for two years, then associate head coach for two more under Hall of Famer Andrea Gaston. He then spent two seasons as the associate head coach of the men’s squad under Zambri.
While it might sound weird to an outsider, his logic for his style of coaching is sound.
“(Golf) is such an individual sport, and by nature most of these athletes are so selfish. I don’t mean that in a rude way, they just are,” said Silverstein, noting how it’s hard to separate individual from team success. “The way I look at it, if everyone takes care of their business and finishes high on the individual leaderboard, we’ll be fine on the team leaderboard. That’s how we do things.”
Despite their immense regular season success in his first year at the helm, the Trojans lost in the match play quarterfinals of last season’s NCAA Championship to then-defending champion Arizona.
“It’s two years in a row we’ve had a pretty good roster that’s lost in the semis and quarters, but we have some fresh blood,” said Silverstein, referencing his new assistant coach Katie Mitchell, who he says put a little pep in the team’s step. “This group’s pretty motivated. We don’t talk about last season much because the next tournament is the biggest tournament, but in the back of their mind they’re looking forward to Grayhawk and getting back into it.”
While there may be coaches who are as invested in their program as Silverstein, you won’t find a coach who’s more invested. He learned that from his mentor Zambri. With that investment comes trust, and when it comes to trust, all he needs to do is look to Abdulghany.
“If it were a different sport, she’d be our point guard,” Silverstein said with a smile. “She goes out, knows the playbook and what to do, and does everything right.”
More importantly, Silverstein’s group isn’t one to back down or lack confidence, either.
“We go into every tournament not expecting to win, but we know if we play well we should,” he says. “Any lineup we roll out is as good as anyone.”