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Guts and grit lead USC and Wake Forest to finals of NCAA Women’s Championship

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – If women’s college golf had a wish list at the beginning of the season, written at the top, in bold, would’ve been an NCAA Championship final between Stanford and Wake Forest. And for much of the season the two national powers appeared to be on a collision course, ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, and combining for 13 wins.

On Tuesday at Grayhawk Golf Club, the Demon Deacons delivered on their end, not dropping a point in a 3-0-2 victory over Texas A&M in the first semifinal of the afternoon.

But the Cardinal? USC had other plans.

The ninth-ranked Trojans, a decade removed from winning their last national championship, took down two-time NCAA individual champ Rose Zhang thanks to junior Brianna Navarrosa, who put away the world No. 1 amateur on the penultimate hole for the deciding point in a 3-2 win.

It might not be the dream matchup many expected, but whatever winning story is written on Wednesday, it will surely be one of redemption. Both Wake and USC had struggled on the punishing, desert layout in the past, the Trojans missing the 54-hole cut two years ago and the Demon Deacons doing the same last year. And prior to this week, neither had advanced to match play at this championship, on this course.

“We’ve had the right game plan the last couple years,” USC head coach Justin Silverstein said. “But we needed a good draw, which we got, and a little bit of luck, and we got that, too.”

Oh, and a lot of toughness.

Perhaps no one exemplified that quality on Tuesday more than Wake Forest junior Mimi Rhodes. In the emergency room on Monday night receiving an IV for dehydration, Rhodes again battled the extreme heat in her semifinal matchup against Blanca Fernandez Garcia-Poggio. On the par-4 12th hole, Rhodes was hit by what she described as a “wave” – her head light, her body overheating, and feeling like she was going to throw up.

“Mimi felt miserable,” Wake head coach Kim Lewellen said. “There was a moment where I thought I was going to have to do a 10-minute medical just to see if she was OK.”

As Lewellen poured ice water all over Rhodes, placed wet towels around her neck and filled her up with fluids, she gave the junior the option to withdraw.

“She asked me, ‘Are you going to be able to finish this?’” Rhodes recalled. “And I said, ‘This is what we’ve worked for our whole year.’ I just had to make it to the 18th hole. We only needed one more match.”

After wins by seniors Emilia Migliaccio and Rachel Kuehn, that third Wake point could’ve been posted by any one of three players – Carolina Chacarra, Lauren Walsh or Rhodes, who entering the season was probably the least likely to deliver on this stage. But before the team’s first tournament of the fall, Rhodes popped in Lewellen’s office and said, point blank, “Help me get better.”

It took a semester, but after changing her practice routine, switching out her driver (and later her putter prior to ACCs) and fixing a few flaws in her swing, Rhodes started to produce the results – five straight top-25s, including a pair of top-10s, before a respectable T-31 showing in stroke play at Grayhawk. And her once shaky short game? It was darn near indestructible down the stretch on Tuesday.

“So many great up-and-downs,” Rhodes said.

Once a range rat, Rhodes spends more time in the chipping area and on the practice green these days. After dropping the 12th hole to let Fernandez tie up their match, Rhodes short-sided herself at the par-3 13th before holing an 8-footer for par and returning to 1 up. On the next hole, she drained a 10-footer for another up-and-down par. At the par-3 16th, she chunked her tee shot – “I couldn’t even feel my arms,” she said – before rolling in yet another clutch par, this time from 15 feet. And finally, there was the touchy chip from behind the green at the par-4 17th hole to again avoid a costly bogey.

“I don’t know how I did it,” said Rhodes, who dodged a nearly miraculous up-and-down birdie at the par-5 finishing hole by Fernandez, who missed an 8-footer after finding desert off the tee and then a fairway bunker some 80 yards out.

Added Lewellen: “All that hard work is paying off, and in the toughest conditions.”

When it comes to the tough task of taking down arguably the greatest women’s college player ever, no USC player was more equipped, in Silverstein’s eyes, than Navarrosa.

Sure, the junior got subbed out for Christine Wang after rounds of 72-78 at Pac-12s and missed the first 36 holes at the NCAA Pullman Regional. But Silverstein knew he’d need Navarrosa at Grayhawk, so he inserted her into the lineup for the final round of regionals, and she posted a bogey-free, 5-under 67. She then won a team qualifier to earn the start for nationals.

So, how did a player who finished T-49 or worse five times this season, including this week, take down Zhang, an eight-time winner this season?

“The only way to beat Rose on a place that requires tons of discipline is to have someone run the table on the greens, and Bri gave us the best chance of that,” Silverstein said. “Bri goes on weeks stretches of gaining a lot [of strokes putting] … and she loves these greens.”

Even after another disappointing stroke-play performance, Navarrosa entered her bout with Zhang armed with a message from Silverstein that was taped to the back of her phone. The note read: Trust all the work.

If Navarrosa believed in her game, she had the ability to pull off the upset.

“Going into the match, I just saw her as another competitor,” Navarrosa said.

And early on, Zhang was exactly that, doubling the first hole of the anchor match, shooting 5-over 41 on the front and falling 3 down at the turn. But give Navarrosa the credit; she made the plays when needed, none more important than her 10-foot sliding birdie make at No. 16, which matched a tight tee shot by Zhang and kept the Stanford star 2 down in what, by that time, was the deciding match.

“I was like, I gotta make this, and I usually don’t tell myself that,” Navarrosa said of the putt. “But I was like, I’ll make it.”

And on the next hole, she closed out Zhang, who after winning back-to-back NCAA individual titles is now tasked with deciding whether she will return to Stanford for a third year or turn professional.

USC and Wake, meanwhile, will play on.

It’s not No. 1 vs. No. 2, but this championship matchup still has tons of sizzle.

Both teams have supreme talent.

Both teams have something to prove.

And both teams, though they haven’t seen each other a ton during the past few regular seasons, are very familiar with each other. Silverstein and Wake assistant Ryan Potter are best friends, talking at least every other day, and Silverstein reckons that besides his mentor, Pepperdine men’s assistant Chris Zambri, no other coach in the country knows more about the Trojans than Potter. And vis versa.

“One of us is going to win, and if it’s not going to be us, I’d love to see him and Kim get one,” Silverstein said. “I’m happy they’re in this spot, but we’re pretty good, too. Unfortunately, I think some people forgot that the past couple years. We’d been the standard for a while, and I’m happy to have us back in this spot to try and get one.”

Wake, of course, will surely have something to say about that.

“This team wants this so bad,” Lewellen said.

So, rip the wish list into a million pieces and throw it away. It doesn’t matter if it’s Stanford on the opposing side or not, Wake Forest is one win away from NCAA glory.