EUGENE, Ore. – Stanford coach Anne Walker contends her team is not defending its 2015 NCAA title, it’s only looking forward to the challenge ahead.
“The reality is we’re not defending anything, we’re literally trying to chase something,” Walker said just prior to her team’s afternoon semifinal matches against Duke. “We won last year but this tournament is not ours. All year we’ve been careful about using the word ‘defend’ and making sure we’re using the word ‘pursue.’”
Either way you slice it, only Pac-12 foe Washington stands in the way of Stanford winning its second consecutive NCAA Division I Women’s Championship. The Cardinal ousted perennial powerhouse Duke, 3-2, in the semifinals Tuesday at Eugene Country Club. Washington toppled top-seed UCLA 3-1-1.
Only Florida, Arizona State (twice) and Duke have won consecutive titles. Arizona State won three consecutive from 1993-95 and Duke won three consecutive from 2005-07.
“Wow, I hadn’t thought of that,” Walker said when told her team would be in heady company if it wins on Wednesday. “It’s funny because we got to this point and I actually haven’t even thought about what it would mean to win a title again.”
Said Washington’s Mary Lou Mulflur of her Huskies: “You have to earn everything that you get in life. I feel like they’ve earned this opportunity.”
Stanford should be considered the flight favorite, whether it likes it or not. The Cardinal played brilliantly last year at the NCAA Championship en route to a victory over Baylor that went extra holes. Four of the five from last year’s championship team make up this year’s squad, freshman Sierra Kersten being the lone difference. Still, Kersten won a key semifinal match against Duke’s Celine Boutier to propel the Cardinal.
Point is, Stanford is tested and has the edge. Even if you throw last year’s performance aside – and I don’t know why you would, but if you did – the Cardinal have looked like the best team again this week.
They shot a tournament-low score 9-under 279 in the fourth round of stroke play Monday and that precision has carried into Tuesday’s 36-hole marathon where they beat South Carolina in the morning before ousting Duke in the afternoon.
Junior Casey Danielson (5-0) and senior Mariah Stackhouse (4-1) are a combined 9-1 in NCAA match play the last two years. Those two happen to be nicely placed in positions two and three, respectively, in Stanford's championship lineup. Danielson will face senior Ying Luo and Stackhouse will go against freshman Sarah Rhee, who won four consecutive holes to close out her semifinal match against UCLA’s Louise Ridderstrom.
Washington’s lineup approach seems curious from afar but it’s probably the right way to handle it. Mulflur opted to go with seniors Charlotte Thomas and Luo in the first two positions and closed with freshmen Rhee, Wenyung Keh and Julianne Alvarez. Those three freshmen, after all, won all three points for Washington in the semifinals against UCLA.
Stanford has won four times this year, Washington has won three. Stanford is ranked 12th in the country, Washington is ranked 13th. Stanford was seeded second after stroke play, Washington was seeded fourth. That’s the tale of the tape, which means nothing now.
No matter what happens, however, you can expect a friendly match, even though each team fiercely wants to claim victory. Stanford and Washington play against each other often – the Cardinal have finished better than the Huskies in four of the six tournaments they've played together. They know each other well and have a deep respect for each other.
“I couldn’t be happier with our opponent,” said Mulflur in her 33rd year as coach. “I respect the heck out of Anne. For them to be back here again, that’s huge. Just a statement about the Pac-12. It’ll be fun. It’ll be like playing our best friends tomorrow.”
Said Walker: “Honored TO play the Huskies, to represent the Pac-12, but also Mary Lou Mulflur is a legendary coach and I’ve always looked up to Mary Lou. I have a close friendship with her and just to see her be able to lead her team to this point, it’s really neat to watch.
“Of course we’re going to go out and we hope we win, but I think it’s nice that we get to compete against a woman such as Mary Lou.”