ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (May 23, 2008)--A tournament that was played in heat, cold, wind, hail and rain, one played in the disappearing light of dusk and one played often with lightning in the background, finally found some calm during the final round's last nine holes.
The skies cleared and the sun returned, the winds stopped and the grass dried off a little bit. What was left was the No. 1 USC women's golf team, fighting to maintain a small lead in the 2008 NCAA Women's Golf Championships against crosstown rival UCLA, a team that refused to give an inch.
But the Women of Troy were up to the fight. Beginning the final round with a three-stroke lead, USC never buckled under the pressure and kept the Bruins at bay during six hours of battle to win the 2008 NCAA team title at the University of New Mexico Championship G.C. in Albuquerque, N.M., on Friday (May 23).
Azahara Munoz of Arizona State and UCLA's Tiffany Joh tied for medalist honors at 1-under-par 287.
Troy led after each round for a wire-to-wire win. Going back to the 2008 Pac-10 and NCAA West Regional Championships, USC finished its last nine rounds in first.
"Back in December, we had a party for the team and I had a cake made that said, `Believe in the Dream,'" USC 12th-year Head Coach Andrea Gaston said. "I told them throughout the season to believe in the dream. We talked about it all year long. And it came true. It's incredible."
With little room for error in the final round, USC made few, going 1-over 289 for a 72-hole 16-over 1168 (284-300-295-289), Troy's lowest ever NCAA Championships total. UCLA finished second at 22-over 1174 (289-295-298-292) while three-time defending national champion Duke rallied with the best round of the tournament to finish third at 28-over 1180 (299-300-300-281).
Making its 17th consecutive NCAA appearance and its 11th straight in the championship final, all under Gaston, USC's NCAA title is its second after first winning it in 2003. (As it did this year, USC also led wire-to-wire in its 2003 NCAA Championship final and regional victories). This year's title gives USC its fourth top 5 finish in the last six years and its fourth consecutive tournament win for the first time in program history. It's a streak that also includes the 2008 Pac-10 and NCAA West Regional titles.
Senior Dewi Claire Schreefel, the 2006 NCAA Champion and a two-time All-American entering the tournament, clinched her third top 10 NCAA finish of her career, tying for eighth at 4 -over 292 (73-78-72-69). For the second day in a row, Schreefel was USC's top performer from start to finish.
She opened with a 2-under front 9 with birdies on 5 and 7. After a bogey on 10, she birdied 11 and 14 for her final round 3-under performance. Her birdie on 14 was from about 45 feet while her putter saved her on two long pars on 15 and 16. All were key strokes with UCLA only four strokes back at the time.
"We were all a little nervous and anxious at the start," Schreefel said. "But we all played our game and tried to keep everything in front of us."
Freshman Lizette Salas, the 2008 Pac-10 Freshman of Year, maintained her steady demeanor that has been a hallmark of her game all season. When it counted most, the freshman turned in an even round of 72 to tie for 15th at 7-over 295 (73-77-73-72). She was 2-over on the front 9 but got one stroke back with a birdie on 10. Playing at 1-over during the back 9, she got back to even with a birdie on 18 that extended USC's lead to five strokes at the time.
"I started off good today with a shot within three feet on the 2nd hole. My putting struggled some today but I made a couple good par saves and a bogey save," Salas said. "I played as if we were down today. It kept me focused and alert."
Senior Paola Moreno, who tied for second a year ago at the NCAAs, tied for 20th at 8-over 296 (70-77-75-74). Her final round of 2-over 74 saw her start 3-over on the front 9. But birdies on 11 and 12 got her back in a groove. A bogey on 14 couldn't spoil a strong back 9 that helped USC maintain its lead.
"It was fun. I had a lot of nerves and fought against them all day," Moreno said. "I worked really hard. I wasn't hitting well but kept fighting because I knew the team needed me. This is amazing. It's hard to believe."
Sophomore Belen Mozo, a virtual lock to earn her second straight All-American honor and first as a first teamer, played with Arizona State's Azahara Munoz and UCLA's Tiffany Joh for the second day in row. It was an interesting dynamic, three good friends each vying to lead their team to an NCAA team title while also vying for the NCAA individual crown.
Munoz ultimately won the individual crown during a one-hole playoff against Joh while Mozo finished fourth at 2-over 290 (69-71-75-75). Mozo struggled with her putter and for the first time, her score didn't count toward USC's total. Neither did the three-putt on 18, a symbol of how well the overall team played.
"I was playing for the team first, and myself second," said Mozo, who turned in her fourth straight top 10 finish and seventh top 10 mark on the season. "I couldn't believe I was playing so well for most of the tournament and I kept missing putts today. But it's all about the team today. This is great."
Sophomore Stefanie Endstrasser rebounded from her 7-over on Thursday with a 2-over 74 to tie her for 34th at 12-over 300 (72-75-79-74). She was even going out with a birdie on 5 and a bogey on 9. She bogeyed 15 and 18, but still had a score good enough to count and help USC win.
"It's a dream come true," Endstrasser said.