Northwestern runner-up in NCAA Women's Championship

Writing from Sugar Grove, Illinois

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

In the end, Arizona State’s talent was too much for Northwestern. The Sun Devils beat the Wildcats 3.5-1.5 in Wednesday afternoon’s NCAA Women’s Championship match at Rich Harvest Farms, ending the dream of Northwestern to score their first team golf title.

In another sense, the Wildcats won big. Stunned by surrendering a 10-stroke lead in the Big Ten championship and forced to share the title with Michigan State, they buckled down, first advancing to the 24-team final, then winning the stroke-play competition to snag the first seed in match play, and then rallying on Wednesday morning to knock off Southern California, 3-2. The Wildcats had trailed in four of five matches when play was halted on Tuesday night.

“We’ve been pointing to Rich Harvest Farms for quite a few years,” coach Emily Fletcher said. “But we didn’t dream we’d be here with the bright lights and the microphones.”

Only the winner and runner-up get formal interviews – and a team trophy plus individual awards.

“We all feel pretty blessed to be here,” senior Kacie Komoto said.

“Their embrace of some disappointment in the Big Ten a month ago kinda makes it sweeter,” Fletcher said. “There was nothing to hang our heads about.”

Arizona State’s Olivia Mehaffey won the first three holes with two birdies and a par to put Sarah Cho in a hole she never recovered from, falling 4 and 3. Janet Mao and Stephanie Lau of the Wildcats were even or ahead in their matches early, then began to fall back against Roberta Liti and Linnea Strom, respectively, dropping 5 and 4 and 5 and 3 decisions.

When Strom closed out Lau on the 15th green, Northwestern’s Hannah Kim and Arizona State’s Monica Vaughn were on the bridge to the first fairway, having hit their tee shots on the 19th after Vaughn had squared the match at the last with a birdie. That match, now moot, stopped there.

The lone Wildcat win in the final was authored by Komoto, who took the measure of Sophie Zeeb 3 and 1. The match went back and forth on the front, and was squared by Komoto with a birdie on the 11th. She won the 12th with a 20-foot birdie putt, and won the 14th with another birdie and the 15th with a par to go 2 up. A conceded par on the par-4 16th when Zeeb rinsed her approach finished the match.

Northwestern’s previous best finish was last year, a teeth-grinding ninth, when they missed match play by a stroke – though, truth be told, it was only that close because teams ahead of them backed up. Still, from ninth to second with the same team, and only Komoto graduating, indicated the trend is up for Fletcher’s crew.

“This group believed it was going to win the Big Ten championship this year,” Fletcher said. “After we didn’t, we said, ‘We can be better. We learned something about ourselves at the Big Ten. And we decided we weren’t going to feel sorry about ourselves.”

To get to the final against Arizona State, the Wildcats turned around the match against the Trojans in the morning. The comeback was completed by Janet Mao’s defeat of Gabriella Then with a par putt on the 19th hole.

“There was not a doubt in my mind when I stood over that putt,” Mao said.

After the afternoon disappointment went off, the Wildcats came into the press trailer – and were awed by the notion of sitting down before cameras, microphones and lights, and even cups of water. Selfies were taken, giggles were prevalent and the mood was upbeat. That speaks to how obscure, relatively speaking, women’s golf is in college compared to football and basketball.

And how far Northwestern’s women’s program has come.

Around Rich Harvest Farms

Arizona State coach Missy Farr-Kaye on winning the school's eighth NCAA women’s golf title: “This was a grueling championship. I think we left our hotel at 4:30 three days and had 12 hour days. For us, it was, ‘Let’s get to the top eight and see what we can do.” They did so much, they could grab a late dinner at Rich Harvest and watch the Golf Channel replay of their title win on a big screen. ... Arizona State also came from behind in its semifinal to score a 3-2 victory over Stanford. ... Next up at Rich Harvest is the NCAA men’s championship, with practice rounds on Thursday and the first of four stroke-play rounds, weather permitting, on Friday. The top eight teams advance to match play beginning Tuesday, in the same format as the women.

Tim Cronin

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