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'Why not us?': Oklahoma State, Ole Miss chasing first NCAA title in women's final

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The blue bloods have left the building.

USC, winner of three NCAA women’s golf team titles, bowed out early with an uncharacteristic performance in which the Trojans beat just one team and missed the 54-hole cut.

Another three-time national champion, UCLA, ended up last among the 15 teams who advanced to Monday.

Arizona State, the record holder for most NCAA titles with eight, snuck into match play, but the hosts only stuck around for the quarterfinals.

Stanford, which hasn’t missed match play since the format was introduced at nationals in 2015, dominated stroke play and continued its streak of playing NCAA Tuesdays, but the Cardinal fell in the first round to Arizona.

The Wildcats, three years removed from their third NCAA triumph, then joined seven-time national champion Duke, the reigning titleholder, in being eliminated in the semifinals.

With so much hardware gone from Grayhawk Golf Club, it’s only fitting that Wednesday’s final of the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship will match two teams that have not only never won a national title but also had never even made match play until this week. Oklahoma State swept Duke, 5-0, and Ole Miss held off Arizona, 3-2, to reach the championship bout in the desert.

“You come here for the first time and I think sometimes you kind of get wide-eyed,” Oklahoma State head coach Greg Robertson said, “but they just kind of put their heads down, did their thing and played their game.”

Added Ole Miss head coach Kory Henkes: “It’s a great opportunity for our program, to play at this high of a level. I think, ‘Why not us?’ We’ve worked hard like every other team here, so why not Ole Miss?”

Highlights: Ole Miss tops Arizona in women's semi

Highlights: Ole Miss tops Arizona in women's semi

With Grayhawk hosting its first of three NCAA Championships this year and Omni La Costa Resort and Spa following with three straight national tournaments in San Diego, experience will soon become an even bigger factor. But for now, what the Cowgirls and Rebels lack in NCAA match-play experience, they more than make up for in other areas, especially in the team-chemistry department. Scan the field this week and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more tight-knit squads, especially in the midst of a pandemic that has stressed social distancing over being social.

“You’re trying to build a team, get a team working together and getting close to each other, but then at the same time you’re telling them to stay away from each other,” Robertson said. “That makes it tough, but somehow they’ve really gelled.”

For both NCAA finalists, it’s been a long season. Each began play in the fall and competed in several formats and under many different sets of protocols. The Cowgirls had to overcome positive tests and contact-tracing situations while the Rebels luckily avoided all but one scare, but both teams suffered notable injuries. Oklahoma State’s Isabella Fierro re-injured her right wrist and missed some events. Ellen Hume starred for Ole Miss in the fall but has made little impact this spring while battling bicep tendonitis and was subbed out after one round at Grayhawk.

Hume’s replacement this week, freshman Smilla Sonderby of Denmark, didn’t arrive on campus until January. Oklahoma State freshman Maddison Hinson-Tolchard of Australia started midseason, as well. Neither player teed it up in conference championships and combined for just two regional rounds, though Sonderby was the quarterfinals hero for the Rebels on Tuesday, earning the deciding point on the 21st hole in a win over Texas.

Unsurprisingly, team building has been a fluid situation for both head coaches.

For the Cowgirls, it’s been leadership by committee. All 11 players on the roster are here at Grayhawk, with the five non-active players paying their own way to Scottsdale. They bond nightly over dinners, where Robertson bans cell phones, and laugh at Robertson’s dad jokes that he writes atop their pin sheets before each round.

Freshman Rina Tatematsu is often the punchline, but the talented Thai embraces her “Wiley Coyote” nickname. Her golf bag feels like she’s carrying bricks, she wears her golf uniform for the next day to bed and she has a crush on Oklahoma State hoops star Cade Cunningham, who used to live in her apartment building in the unit directly below her. (After Tatematsu took down Duke’s Phoebe Brinker, 3 and 2, her smile widened even more when she saw that Cunningham had retweeted a video of her basketball-themed handshake with Robertson on the first tee.)

Tatematsu wins 'tough' match to get Pokes to final

Tatematsu wins 'tough' match to get Pokes to final

The Cowgirls’ version of the likely No. 1 NBA draft pick is sophomore Maja Stark, who entered the NCAA Championship with two wins and three other top-3 finishes. The super Swede boasts one of the most complete games in the women’s college game, including the supreme ability to overpower golf courses.

“When you’re looking at live scoring and she’s 1 up or tied, you just have this feeling that she’s going to pull it off,” Robertson said.

Stark got up on Duke standout Gina Kim early and never trailed. Her 4-and-3 victory included seven birdies and began what ended up being a rout, as Fierro, now healthy and fist-pumping with her right hand, along with Tatematsu, Hinson-Tolchard and Lianna Bailey also earned semifinal points.

On Wednesday, Stark will again lead off for Oklahoma State, drawing Ole Miss veteran Kennedy Swann. The spunky fifth-year senior is the engine that makes this team go. While fellow senior Julia Johnson is a top-10 player in the country, Swann’s positivity is most infectious.

“There were even people laughing at me today because I was smiling so much,” said Swann, who took down Arizona’s Vivian Hou, 3 and 2, in the first match to improve to 7-1 in college match play. After every won hole, Swann would jump up and wave to Andrea Lignell in the group behind. Lignell, who played 40 holes on Tuesday (winning twice), ended up taking down Gile Bite Starkute, whose extra-hole birdie clinched the Wildcats’ quarterfinal victory over No. 1 Stanford earlier in the day, on the final hole. Johnson, now 9-2 in match play for the Rebels, earned the deciding point with a 2-and-1 triumph over Ya Chun Chang.

Swann, whose hobbies include skydiving and whitewater rafting, has most of the team hooked on Game of Thrones. They’ve watched episodes while cooking meals together throughout the season. Henkes playfully jokes that Swann is an “annoying little gnat.”

“She’s going to bug you and she’s going to be persistent until she gets what she wants, and that’s what I love about her,” Henkes said. “She sees something she wants and she’s going to do whatever it takes to get it.”

Whether it’s In-N-Out Burger for dinner Tuesday evening or a national championship on Wednesday, Swann won’t settle for anything less. Her teammates are fully behind her on the latter (they want Raising Cane’s for their pre-final meal).

“They really are all best friends,” Henkes said. “We don’t have the drama, they really just pull for each other and love each other, and I think that’s the biggest key at the end of the season – a lot of times you’re tired and ready to go home, but they’re here to fight for their team.

“They want to win, so they’re just fighting their hardest for it.”

Highlights: Oklahoma State advances in NCAA semis

Highlights: Oklahoma State advances in NCAA semis

Henkes isn’t a big speech-giver. Same with Robertson. The impact of winning an NCAA Championship doesn’t need to be overstated. The Cowgirls’ best NCAA finish was second in 2004, and as a school Oklahoma State, winner of 52 national titles, has never had a women’s national champion. The Rebels first qualified for nationals four years ago and are making their third appearance this year.

“They know what’s at stake; I don’t have to give them any kind of speech,” Robertson said. “They’re going to come out, play their game and see where it ends up.”

Oklahoma State and Ole Miss might not be blue bloods in women’s college golf, but that’s fine by them.

“We all are really nervous, you know, but at the same time excited, and I think this excitement beats the nervous,” Tatematsu said. “We enjoy the pressure.”

Added Swann: “The lack of experience, I think, is just an advantage. We perform well as the underdogs.”