ATLANTA – Washington was the last team to leave East Lake Golf Club on Monday night.
There was a lot to discuss.
A few hours earlier, the defending NCAA women’s champions had finished last in the stroke-play qualifier at the East Lake Cup. No, not just last – counting all five scores, the Huskies were a combined 42 over par, losing to Stanford by 44 strokes.
In one round.
“We were embarrassed,” Washington coach Mary Lou Mulflur said. “We know we’re better than that. Everybody felt horrible. I don’t think I’ve ever been so down. You’re thinking it’s going to be a blood bath (Tuesday).”
Mulflur had wrapped up her media obligations and was about to summon her team from the range. Then volunteer assistant coach David Elaimy stepped in. It was time to talk.
And so for 45 minutes Monday night, Mulflur opened up and cried on the back steps of the clubhouse.
“I didn’t realize how much pressure I was feeling,” she said. “I was really trying to help them be comfortable with being the reigning champions and focusing on the team. But I didn’t realize how much stress I was putting on myself as the defending-champion coach. I don’t mean that in an ego way. It’s just so much different.
“It’s been this nonstop whirlwind of feel good, but inside, it’s been really hard. I’m not complaining – you’d get 260 teams that would change places with us in a heartbeat. But it’s about learning to manage it.
“And it’s new for me. You feel that responsibility that you’re supposed to know how to do everything, and I don’t. I’ve never done it before.”
And this is an entirely new Washington team to coach. The two senior leaders are gone, off to the pro ranks. In their place are three sophomores – who were the breakout stars of last year’s NCAA finals – and two freshmen.
Washington won its season opener, but it has been a struggle ever since. In the past few weeks, the Huskies were 16th in an 18-team field and then 10th at the Pac-12 Preview. Then came Monday’s round at the East Lake Cup, where three of their starters, including top player Julianne Alvarez, carded a round in the 80s.
“Being a sophomore but having to step into a leadership role for the freshmen and coming off a national championship, you don’t mean to think about it,” Alvarez said, “but you have these subconscious pressures of performing well and living up to the expectations.”
And the problems started at the top, as Mulflur, in her 33rd season, tried to navigate her new normal.
Elaimy sensed the inner struggle. When the Huskies won the title over Stanford last May, their normally high-energy coach was the picture of calm, comfortable and confident in who she was, where her team was heading.
“I want that back,” she said.
Turns out it took an open and honest evaluation from her own players to regain the feeling.
“They called me out,” Mulflur said. “In some ways, I was showing my vulnerability, that I was just as vulnerable as they were. A coach is supposed to be stoic and project an image. But to have players that I felt like I could let my guard down with, and for them to realize, hey, she’s just like us ... that helped them, but it helped me more.”
Said Alvarez: “That open channel of communication allowed us to progress as a team.”
When Washington left for the course Tuesday morning, Mulflur said, the “energy was off-the-charts good.” Another match with Stanford loomed, but the attitude was wildly different after their emotional pow wow.
“We were free from those pressures and expectations,” Alvarez said.
They played like it, too.
Eun Won Park, who shot 81 Monday, birdied the first two holes against Stanford freshman Andrea Lee, the individual champion here and one of the best players in the country. “I showed that score to everybody on my team,” Mulflur said. Park eventually lost that match, but the tone was set.
A day after losing to Stanford’s Casey Danielson by 16 shots, Ellen Takada chipped in on the 17th to win, 2 and 1.
Sarah Rhee and Wenyung Keh each clobbered their opponent, 5 and 4.
And Alvarez, less than 24 hours after posting a field-worst 86, poured it on late for a 3-and-1 victory.
Washington 4, Stanford 1.
The Huskies will face Duke on Wednesday in the championship match.
“Winning was just gravy, honestly,” Mulflur said.
“That’s match play,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said. “They came in as the underdogs with nothing to lose. They were in a terrific spot.”
Even though it sure didn’t seem like it Monday night.
“It wasn’t so much the win, but the way it felt, even before the round,” Mulflur said. “To be relaxed and calm and to know that no matter what, we were going to be fine. I was going to be fine. That was comforting.
“The result didn’t matter. It’s just learning.”