May 5, 2005
It’s been awhile since things looked this good for the Arizona State women’s golf program. To be precise it was 2001, when five-time national coach of the year Linda Vollstedt decided to retire after leading the Sun Devils to six NCAA championships.
A lot of turmoil and growing pains have followed in Vollstedt’s wake, but apparently ASU coach Melissa Luellen, now in her third year, has righted the oncestruggling ship. Ranked fourth in the country, the Sun Devils are a legitimate contender to win the NCAA Central Regional when play gets under way today on the Jerry S. Rawls Course in Lubbock, Texas.
Naturally, the regional is just the first of two steps in what Luellen hopes will turn out to be her first national championship at ASU. If all goes according to plan, the Sun Devils will have their finest showing of the season come May 17-20 at the NCAA championship, which this year is being hosted by Oregon State in Sun River, Ore.
"It’s been a lot of fun," said Luellen of a season that has produced three tournament titles and the nation’s top-ranked player in Swedish sensation Louise Stahle.
"We got our wish by being selected for the Central Regional, and now we’ve got to go win it, so we can get some good tee times for nationals."
The NCAA ladder is an interesting process. The best teams in the East, West and Central regions get selected as the No. 1 seeds, with 20 other teams and three individuals chosen for each regional. ASU, which was the runner-up in the recent Pac-10 championship, is the No. 2 seed behind Southeastern Conference champ Auburn.
"The Central is probably the weakest of the regionals, while the West is the toughest, and the East is the second-toughest," Luellen conceded. "I’m not trying to duck the competition, but every year there is a top-ranked team that fails to advance from regionals.
"So we’re very happy, even if we’re looking at 40-mph winds in Lubbock."
Luellen’s point is well-taken. For instance, last year the Sun Devils barely squeaked out of the West with a seventh-place finish (the top eight teams advance), but went on to finish 10th at nationals. Plus, as Luellen noted, a good showing in Texas will net a top seed in the cooler climes of Oregon, where afternoon (warmer) tee times will be another slight advantage.
Make no mistake, everything has to come together like magic to win a national championship. The great players on a team, like Stahle and Tiffany Tavee for ASU, have to live up to their billing. And the rest of the team, in ASU’s case Alissa Kuczka, Erin Tone and Charmaine Erasmus, have to play the golf of their life, or at least one of them does. When that happens, teams win titles.
"Right now, Louise and Tiffany are playing very well," Luellen reported. "And Erin, Alissa and Charmaine are on the verge."
On paper, this is a young team made up of one freshman (Stahle), two sophomores (Tavee and Erasmus), one junior (Kuczka) and a senior (Tone). But Stahle is a veteran who has played international competition for four years now, and her 71.25 stroke average for the season is the best in the country. And the other four players all played in last year’s NCAA tournament run, and you can’t ever underestimate experience when it comes to the Big Dance.
Whether or not there is a sense of urgency to win it all right now remains to be seen.
Stahle has given mixed signals as to how long she will stay in school before the LPGA comes calling. But if she leads the Sun Devils to the top of the mountain later this month, chances are Luellen would be a lot less bummed to see her superstar turn pro.
NCAA Central Regional
When: Today through Saturday Where: Jerry S. Rawls Course (par 72), Lubbock, Texas
Format: 54 holes (top eight teams advance)
Field: Auburn, Arizona State, New Mexico, LSU, Wake Forest, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Michigan, Tulsa, TCU, Southern Methodist, Purdue, Michigan State, Kent State, Baylor, Texas A&M, South Florida, Texas Tech, Notre Dame, Long Island
Live scoring: www.golfstat.com