ASU, Hernandez claim NCAA glory
OWINGS MILLS, Md.--Attention to the curator for the Arizona State Sports Hall of Fame. You're about to receive a new addition for the trophy case.
Meanwhile, the folks in West Lafayette, Ind., need to make room for some new hardware as well. With birdies on two of her final three holes, Purdue senior Maria Hernandez closed out her college career with a final-round 71 and a one-over 289 overall score, than watched that total hold up to win the NCAA individual title by a stroke when USC's Jennifer Song double bogeyed the 72nd hole.
By securing medalist honors Friday with her sixth victory of the 2008-09 season and the 13th of her career, Hernandez also earned the NGCA National College Player of the Year award. It's the first time any Boilermaker golfer has earned either honor.
Three Sun Devils--senior Azahara Munoz, junior__Juliana Murcia__ and freshman Carlota Ciganda--posted even-par 72s to help coach__Melissa Luellen__ claim her sixth victory of the season and bring the NCAA team title back to Tempe for the first time since 1998.
"It's been a long time coming," Luellen said behind the 18th green, in between hugs and well wishes. "It's a little bit of a relief, kind of having the monkey off our backs and to come through when we had to."
ASU entered the day one-stroke back of USC, but took command of the tournament mid-way through the front nine. While the Sun Devils hung around par, the defending NCAA champion Trojans or the Bruins, six time winners during the season, couldn't seem to get anything to fall.
"We knew we couldn't try and protect the lead, that we needed to make something happen," said USC coach Andrea Gaston. "[But] we never made any birides."
Only Song, a 19-year-old freshman, looked to have any command of her game. Holding a two-stroke lead individually after three rounds, Song extended the margin to four shots after nearly making a hole in one on the par-3 fourth to go one under on the day. After scrambling for par on the seventh hole, she made a double bogey on the par-3 eighth when her tee ball landed in the water to the right of the green.
Still, a birdie on the 14th hole allowed Song to keep a one-shot lead over Hernandez, who started her round the 10th tee 50 minutes prior to the final group teeing off, even as the Purdue All-American closed out with a birdie-birdie-par finish.
Clinging to the one-shot advantage coming to the 18th hole, Song proceeded to hit a perfect tee shot into the fairway. But then her swing got loose on her approach shot from 158 yards as she opened up slight with a 7-iron, the ball finding the front bunker.
"I don't think I believe it right now," said Hernandez, who was hitting balls on the range, anticipating a playoff, when Song three-putted the final hole. "It was just kind of surprising really. I knew today that I had to go all out. I had a really rough start, but I've been playing good golf the entire week. I finished pretty well today, but that putt for birdie on 18 I thought was right there, but it didn't go in. I'm lucky."
(For more information on Hernandez's amazing career at Purdue, click here to link to my feature story on her from the May 18 issue of Golf World*.)
"If I was able to change anything I'd done, it would be to hit a 6-iron and just get it anywhere on the green," Song said.
Suffice it to say, ASU's victory was a team effort inspired by the Sun Devils associate head coach, Missy Fare Kaye, who was forced to sit out the fall portion of the season after being diagnosed with breast cancer. She returned to action in the spring, but found herself in the emergency room a week ago due to complications from her chemotherapy treatments. Thankfully, doctors gave her the OK to travel to Caves Valley, and she re-joined the team a day before the championship began.
"She's an inspiration to us all," said Munoz. "We're just so glad she was able to be here. It wouldn't have been complete without her."
ASU team photo by Rafael Suanes; Hernandez photo by Chris Stanford