Laura Ianello cried plenty all week. In fact, she cried a river in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“I bawled every day,” she said. “I was so happy – tears of joy. I cried after every match that was won. I was so happy for them.”
The them? Well, her University of Arizona women’s golf team, who flew into Tucson on Thursday morning as NCAA champions after a championship run unmatched since, um, Arizona’s basketball title run in 1997. Arizona knocked off every higher seed in front of it.
Thirty-some hours of driving and putting heaven. It’s likely no one could have scripted it any better than how they played it.
Arizona defeated No. 1 UCLA.
Then, beat No. 5 Stanford
Then, toppled No. 2 Alabama for the title on Wednesday afternoon.
Gone, Gone. Gone.
Now, this Arizona team won’t ever be forgotten. It was all about emotion for Ianello and her Wildcats, a team that never felt like the underdog this week but clearly was, which, of course, made it an even better story.
The Wildcats, seeded ninth going into the NCAAs before match play, snuck in the top eight and then became a team of Marisa Baenas and Annika Sorenstams.
This year’s version came in the form of:
• freshman Cecilie Bofill;
• senior Natalia Forero;
• junior Desiree Hong;
• freshman Yu-Sang Hou;
• junior Haley Moore;
• sophomore Sandra Nordaas;
• junior Bianca Pagdanganan; and
• junior Gigi Stoll.
They called themselves “The Great Eight” and proved to be that. It was the top five players that made everything thrive. The team was so tightknit that they created t-shirts with the slogan: “If you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together.”
But it was Pagdanganan, Nordaas, Moore, Stoll and Hou who collectively pulled the rope to get Arizona’s third NCAA golf title and 19th NCAA title overall.
When Ianello reached the podium by early evening on Thursday in addressing about 300 fans who celebrated the team’s arrival to UA’s Hall of Champions, she warned people she might cry again saying she was appreciative of the fans and her team.
“One of the best parts of coaching these five – eight – fantastic young women is the fact that they put their hearts and souls out there every day,” she said. “They work hard in the classroom, on the golf course and the gym. And coach Derek Radley, I wouldn’t be the coach I am if I didn’t have you.”
And she went on and on, battling back those possible tears of joy.
“It’s not just one person, but this is a heck of a special group,” she said.
All played a major part, with Pagdanganan hitting an unthinkable eagle to help UA get into the final eight to Moore sinking that short putt to seal the deal.
From ups and downs to playoffs to those shots, Arizona found a way. But isn’t that how championships happen? Gotta be good and lucky.
“It’s a grind out there but we were physically ready,” said Stoll. “And we got it done.”
Nordaas helped by winning her match getting this advice from Ianello: “Breathe in and breathe out.” Yet, it wasn’t that easy.
“I was just trying to stay as calm as possible,” Nordaas said. “It’s an amazing feel that you get to help the team win the national championship and be part of it. I’m so proud of them. It’s unbelievable.”
For everyone it was mindboggling and, of course, “nerve-wracking” much like it was for Moore, who nailed the final put. Never before had she had more pressure and this from a golfer who had seen some of the highest tournaments for a young woman.
“I just felt so much emotions come out,” Moore said of the final putt in the playoff. “It was such an amazing experience.”
For all involved. And, of course, Ianello, who helped UA win a national title in 2000 as a student-athlete, cried. She didn’t back then, she said, in part because this was all different 18 years later.
“You dream about this moment because as a coach this is what you work for and this is what you go to practice for every day,” she said. “This is why you recruit and why you spend time away from your children and your family. It’s 100 times more amazing than what I dreamt it would be.”