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USC women top Stanford for East Lake Cup

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ATLANTA – No event brings a team together like match play.

And nothing threatens to tear it apart like LPGA Q-School.

The championship match of this East Lake Cup was a glimpse into what this season could hold for Southern Cal. On the strength of impressive performances from junior Robynn Ree and sophomore Muni He, the Trojans defeated Stanford, 3-2, on Wednesday to take the team title for the second time in three years.

But it also may have been Ree and He’s final time wearing a USC polo. Both players are entered in the final stage of Q-School and could join the pro ranks next month.

It was a bittersweet victory.

“This might be it,” USC coach Andrea Gaston said, “but I’m learning to deal with it.”

If its two best players leave LA, USC will have no choice but to rely on two sophomores, a freshman and two players who will enroll in the spring. (The Trojans’ next tournament is Feb. 6.) The roster is strong – these are the Trojans, after all, and they have 12 consecutive top-5 finishes at nationals – but there’s no denying that without Ree or He, their NCAA title aspirations will take a massive hit.

It’s the main drawback of this current format, in which amateurs can enter Q-School without repercussion and only need to decide at the end of final stage whether they will turn pro.

East Lake Cup: Articles, photos and videos

Men’s and women’s scoring from the East Lake Cup

There were discussions last year that the LPGA would soon eliminate the traditional Q-School route, funneling every player through the Symetra Tour. The three-event qualifying series in the fall would award cards to the LPGA’s developmental circuit and put an end to the midseason departures that have crippled the college game. There was some hope that the changes would take effect in the fall of 2018, but that timeline now seems overly optimistic. The headache remains.

“I’m not convinced that’s going to happen soon,” Gaston said.

Defending NCAA champion Arizona State is in a similar position, perhaps on the verge of losing its star, Linnea Strom, to the pro game. Head coach Missy Farr-Kaye hasn’t even discussed that possibility with Strom but plans to do so in the coming days. No coach wants to deprive her players a chance to chase their dreams – assuming they’re ready to handle it.

“I’ve tried to monitor my stress level with something like that, because there are things you can and can’t control,” Gaston said. “I’m proud to have players who think they’re good enough to get out on tour. You can’t stop them from pursuing what they love to do.”

If this was the end for Ree and He, they went out as winners.

Ree won the stroke-play title here at East Lake, then rolled to a 3-and-2 win over Northwestern in the semifinals and a 1-up decision over Stanford’s Shannon Aubert in the finals. Both Ree and He skipped one of USC’s fall events to play second stage, and the hectic schedule has taken its toll. “It’s definitely been hard,” Ree said. “I’ve barely been home.” But she said that her future plans weren’t on her mind this week at East Lake, saying it was just another tournament.

He had a more difficult time blocking out the distraction, even talking about the future with her coach in between shots. It didn’t affect her play. Facing off against Stanford’s Andrea Lee, a Player of the Year contender with three individual titles already, He went on a torrid run to begin the back nine, playing a four-hole stretch in 5 under to take control of the match.

“To go into Q-School with a win, and this experience, is really special,” He said.

Especially if it’s her last experience as a Trojan.