Eyes on reigning NCAA champs at East Lake Cup

Stanford's 2014-15 national championship team


ATLANTA – Forty-eight hours after her team won the NCAA Championship, Stanford women’s coach Anne Walker finally looked down at her phone. She had more than 1,000 unread messages. 

There was the note from the viewer watching at home in New Zealand, and from the man sitting in a pub in England, and from the guy waiting in the airport in Oakland, who was apparently so engrossed in the championship match against Baylor that he nearly missed his flight.

“It was just nuts,” Walker said Sunday. “I had so many text messages, I thought I’d have to throw my phone away.”

The memories have come rushing back now that all four teams from last year’s NCAA semifinals have reconvened here for the inaugural East Lake Cup. Stanford, which returns all five starters from last year’s title-winning squad, will face off against No. 2-ranked Duke in the first round of matches Monday.  

The party rages on for the Cardinal, even five months later.

Over the summer, Walker and junior Casey Danielson attended the ESPY Awards. Upon returning to campus, the entire team attended a party with some of the program’s most prominent boosters. The players gave speeches and made toasts and received their NCAA rings. A few weeks ago, they had a fun photo shoot with the NCAA trophy in San Francisco – in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the Twin Peaks, on Lombard Street.

“We decided as a group this fall that we obviously want to be focused and get better, but we really want to make the most of being the reigning national champions,” Walker said. “First-hand experience tells me that it’s really hard to win, and we might never get another chance.”

It hasn’t been all fun and games, of course. Stanford already has two wins this fall and is ranked sixth in the country. To hear Walker, though, this celebration was a year and a half in the making: The program’s transformation began at the 2014 Pac-12 Championship, where the Cardinal outdueled USC, UCLA and Arizona State to win the conference title.

“That feeling of getting that championship really inspired the group,” she said, “because they asked themselves: If this win feels this good, what does a national championship feel like? It’s an addictive feeling, that high that you get of just being in the moment and getting it done.”

That feeling is a distant memory for the reigning men’s champion, LSU.

The Tigers, who stormed through the spring and thumped Southern Cal in the final, have been beset with injuries through the first four events of the season. They will face Georgia in the first match Monday.  

Heralded freshman Nathan Jeansonne has missed two events this fall – the first because of mononucleosis, the latest because of an eye abrasion he suffered while trying to remove a contact lens. Sophomore Blake Caldwell’s back went out in the second event. Another of the team’s top freshmen, Luis Gagne, played the first tournament but has been out since because of a wrist injury.

And that list of the walking wounded doesn’t even include junior All-American Brandon Pierce, who is trying to play his way back into shape after suffering a broken neck the day after NCAAs.

The injury list has been so long, coach Chuck Winstead joked, that “it feels like they’ve been trying to tackle Leonard Fournette,” the school’s Heisman Trophy frontrunner.

Every week, it seems, the Tigers have been trying to make it work, to find a starting lineup that will keep them competitive. So far, they’ve had mixed results, with their only win coming in their home event and two other finishes outside the top eight.

This fall has been nothing like Stanford’s joy ride.

“For me the fall has not been fun at all,” Winstead said, “because we haven’t played like we’re capable of playing. Every individual has their own threshold of what is acceptable to them relative to their performance. Every team has one, too. For these guys, and for their coach, the results this fall are not acceptable relative to what we’re capable of, and that’ll create what we need to keep going.”

Yet it’s fair to wonder here whether LSU’s fall results even matter. College golf is all about peaking at the right time. That’s the late spring, not midway through the fall. There is still plenty of time for the Tigers to get healthy, to gel as a team, to prepare to defend their title.

“The fall matters to me,” Winstead said. “If you’re a great player, you want to be great all the time. I don’t think great players show up for Augusta and all of a sudden are Masters champions. Great players are great players because they bring it every week.”

LSU is loaded with those great players, from Zach Wright to All-American Eric Ricard to No. 1-ranked freshman recruit Sam Burns. But the Tigers have looked lethargic so far, perhaps because of a national-title hangover, or maybe because of all the injuries that have thrown their lineup into flux. Teams that face tough competition at home, in head-to-head battles in practice, often fare better on the road.  

“We’ve had our ups and downs this fall,” Wright said, “but we have a really good team. It’s gonna be all right.”

A national title leads to increased expectations, sure, but also an added level of perspective. And patience. Walker knows this. Now Winstead does, too. 

“You know what it looks like now to build a team into being able to perform like that,” he said. “I felt like I had an idea before, but I don’t have to wonder. I’ve seen it. Hopefully we can trend heading back that way soon … like, tomorrow.”