Arizona kept working overtime until the title was theirs (Sue Agrocki/AP photo)
STILLWATER, OK (May 23, 2018) - When Haley Moore sank the winning putt for Arizona on Wednesday at the NCAA Women’s Championship, the tears were measured in minutes. Every one of Arizona’s five players, plus the two coaches, were sobbing on the 18th green, and rightfully so. It has been an exhausting ride.
Arizona added a third national title to its collection by defeating Alabama, the top-ranked team in the nation, 3-2. The last time Arizona’s women won the national championship was in 2000. Head coach Laura Ianello (nee Myerscough) was on the roster then, though not in the starting lineup. Ianello is a passionate coach who bleeds red and blue – and so does her resume. Aside from the break she took to try her hand at a professional golf career, Arizona is all she has ever known.
“Arizona is my home,” Ianello said after hoisting the trophy for the first time as a coach. “It is where I went to school and it needs to be back home. I am so proud to be the coach to bring it back.”
Arizona's path to this national title has been unlikely, starting all the way back in the fall. The Wildcats welcomed a transfer from Gonzaga, abruptly lost a senior to the Symetra Tour over the holidays then added a first-semester freshman. There isn’t a real headliner, and it’s a formula that works well.
“I just find all my teammates really inspiring,” said Bianca Pagdanganan, the junior transfer. Days before the title was in Arizona’s hands, Pagdanganan said the year has gone better than she ever expected. After qualifying for this tournament twice as an individual, Pagdanganan was itching for a chance to play with a team.
For women’s college golf, match play is a game changer in many ways. For one thing, it exposes weak spots in a lineup. Arizona doesn’t have any of those, and it’s a big reason why, after six marathon days at Karsten Creek Golf Club in Stillwater, Okla., the Wildcats have a trophy.
The national championship begins with 72 holes of stroke play, which were a rollercoaster ride for the Wildcats. They looked a lock for the eight-team bracket in Round 3, only to drop six shots in the closing holes. It was very nearly devastating, because the team came back the next day and posted the worst score of Round 4 – a 17-over 305.
Pagdanganan, the final Wildcat on the course that day, poured in a 25-foot eagle putt at No.18 to get Arizona into a playoff that they ultimately won. Match-play victories followed against UCLA, the top seed, and Stanford, a team that has done better in this format year after year than any other program.
Ianello told her players to use the image of that eagle putt dropping any time they needed a pick-me-up on the course. Pagdanganan had no idea that one putt would carry her team so far.
“Ever since that putt, it helped pump my teammates up and I think that is what helped get us here,” she said.
Every Arizona player won at least one match this week. First-semester freshman Yu-Sang Hou’s big moment came Wednesday, when Ianello slotted her into the lead-off position. Hou drew Lauren Stephenson, Alabama’s best player, but got a huge point for the team with her 4-and-3 victory.
“I was really nervous the night before but coach just told me, ‘Your teammates have your back,’ and that made me feel a lot better,” Hou said.
The next two matches on the bracket went to Alabama before Arizona sophomore Sandra Nordaas edged Angelica Moresco. Ultimately, it came down to Haley Moore, a powerful yet emotional player who fed off the positive energy of Arizona assistant coach Derek Radley to take down Alabama senior Lakareber Abe. Moore had to rally after getting 2 down on the front nine, which showed why she was a great pick for Arizona’s anchor match.
Moore’s early-week play gave a window into how she might approach match play. Ianello warned all her players not to try to overpower Karsten Creek. Moore nearly let the course get the best of her in Round 3 when she triple-bogeyed the next-to-last hole. Moore hit driver three times off that tee box, and only avoided a massive score because the first one was found.
All along, Moore thought match play would be more exciting than stroke play because it would allow for more strategy and aggressive play, under the right circumstances.
“You have to feel that everything is working in your game,” she said early week. “When I have played match play, I felt good…because most of the time I just felt like I had more drama in me and I just play a little more aggressive.”
Arizona’s title breaks the mold in many ways. The Wildcats don’t really fit the underdog profile, but that’s what they were this week. They clawed their way onto the bracket then dug in their heels. A year ago, Arizona didn’t even qualify for this championship. The year before that, they narrowly missed match play.
Six months ago, this moment felt impossible to Ianello. But she saw something special in this team developing throughout the second semester, and never felt Arizona played to its potential in the regular season.
“When you have good people on the team, you don’t want to disappoint your teammates,” she said of her squad’s vibe.
What a week to find your best stuff.