OWINGS MILLS, Md.--They've been ranked 1-2-3, in some order, for the entire 2008-09 college season. It's seems only fitting then that USC, Arizona State and UCLA will find themselves paired together in the final group Friday to decide the 28th NCAA Women's Championship at Caves Valley GC.
"We're all very familiar with each other, that's for sure," said USC coach Andrea Gaston, the three schools having played in the same tournament with each other six times since September. "It should be a lot of fun. It's a repeat of the entire season."
The three Pac-10 powers separated themselves from the rest of the field during the third round at Caves Valley GC Thursday, the Trojans grabbing the lead at 26-over 890, the Sun Devils one back at 27 over and the Bruins three behind at 29 over. In a distant fourth was North Carolina at 42 over.
While all three are in prime position to claim the national title, the moods of the three contenders varied at the end of Day 3. ASU coach Melissa Luellen was all smiles after her team shot a three-over 29, the week's low round. "We're going to eat some steak for dinner tonight," Luellen said, a quasi-reward for the solid round that jumped them from T-4 to second place. "I'm just really proud of the team. They played much more patient today."
Sun Devil senior Azahara Munoz shot a even-par 72, but it was sophomore Jaclyn Sweeney who provided the true spark with a three-under 69 coming less than 24 hours after nearing being brought to tears by her balky putter.
"I've been stressing working on my putting later and I was really frustrated," Sweeney said. "But my teammates were very supportive. Azahara [Munoz] just told me you can't expect everything to go in. Just trust yourself and keep things simple."
Gaston also was pleased with how the Trojans, the defending NCAA champions, faired Thursday, shooting a six-under 294. Leading the way was freshman Jennifer Song, posting a one-under 71 to give her an even-par 216 total and putting her in the individual lead.
"She played solid. She has a good strategy when she goes out. She's just a solid player. It doesn't seem like anything effects her. She's very patient, one shot at a time. She made some good club selections and got some good birdies out there."
Then there was UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth, her squad having held the lead entering the day but giving it away with a 16-over 304, no individual player shooting better than a 74.
"We just played bad," Forsyth said. "I don't even know what else to say. Nothing was going right. We didn't hit good shots, didn't hit good putts. I saw something today that I haven't seen in a long time. We struggled overall from top to bottom."
Indeed, the poor play even plagued Maria Jose Uribe, who followed up her 66 from Wednesday with a 77, to drop into a tie for second individually with Purdue's__Maria Hernandez__ at two-over 218.
"I think we were having a hard time with the speeds on the green," Forsyth said. "[Everybody] was hitting these timid, tentative putts. And we just couldn't seem to get anything going our way. There were definitely some mental errors out there today."
"We're just waiting for a great team round. In my opinion we haven't had a good team round yet."
While a national championship is obviously something to play for, each of the three schools has a different motivation that could become a rallying point come Friday's final round. ASU is looking to win its NCAA record seventh team title, but its first since 1998. UCLA would claim its seventh team title of the season and its second NCAA championship in five years. USC would repeat at champions but would also claim its first team title of the season, having finished second in six out of their 10 tournaments this season.
For the record, here is how USC/ASU/UCLA have fared in the six tournaments where all three have been in the field:
While UCLA and USC were paired with Denver in the final group Thursday, Arizona State made its move while playing in the threesome of schools ahead of the leaders. After the round, ASU coach Melissa Luellen suggested that being away from their natural rivals helped them get things jump started.
"I think we had the advantage today of not playing with them," Luellen said. "We got to go out there on our own and kind of set our own pace, not watch what anybody else was doing."
That said, Luellen likes the pairing her squad will be in for the final 18. "All these kids know each other really well, and like each other, but they also all want to win really badly. I think you're going to see a lot of focused players tomorrow. It's going to be a lot of fun."
So, who did USC freshman Jennifer Song give credit for her solid third-round 71, which put her in the individual lead by two strokes? "Before I came out here my dad called me and told me to have the mind of a samurai," Song said. "There emotions never change no matter what happens. And I kept repeating that to myself. That really helped me."
"I just tired to play smart," added Song, who made three birdies and three bogeys on the day. "Whenever there was a chance to make birdie, I tried to take it. Other than that par was such a good score for me."
Song's also getting inspiration from listening to a CD of Bob Rotella's book, The Golfer's Mind. So convinced that the words of wisdom could help her team, Song actually burned a copy of the CD for each player before the Pac-10 Championship.
Suffice it to say, the 19-year-old Korean native has had a stellar first year with USC, posting six top-five finishes and a 71.41 stroke average. What's missing, however, is the first win. "I'm trying not to think about that," Song said. "I just want to go out and play my game tomorrow."
Alabama's Courtney Harter will be able to take with her the memory of making a hole-in-one at the national championship, but she unfortunately she won't have the lucky ball to display.
After starting her third round on the 10th hole, the sophomore from Clearwater, Fla., used a 4-iron to make an ace on the 180-yard 15th hole. Crimson Tide coach Mic Potter told he to be sure to take the ball out of play after she walked off the green so that she'd have a souvenir.
Harter obliged but as her round progressed, she struggle on the difficult Caves Valley course, making five bogeys and a double in her next 10 holes. Deciding she needed something to get her out of the slump, Harter put the hole-in-one ball back in play on the eighth hole, an 185-yard par 3 with water to the right of the green. Instead of getting good vibes from the ball, however, Harter proceeded to hit it in the water.
Of the school's sitting in the top 12 spots after three rounds of the NCAA Women's Championship, all but two are in the top 12 of the final Golf World/NGCA coaches' poll. Meanwhile, Pepperdine was No. 13 in the poll and Denver was No. 16.