Stanford sinks top-seeded USC for shot at national title

BRADENTON, Fla. – Under normal NCAA circumstances, Andrea Gaston’s USC team would’ve won its fourth national championship on Memorial Day and been on a bird back to L.A. Instead, as Gaston prepared to give her thoughts on her team’s semifinal loss and the NCAA’s shiny new match-play format, a celebration erupted in a nearby tent.

Baylor had defeated Duke in an epic playoff between freshmen ranked 410th and 234th.

“You’ve got two teams that have never won a national championship that are in the finals tomorrow,” Gaston said. “So there you go.”

Stanford gutted Gaston’s top-seeded Trojans in a steamy semifinal round Tuesday at Concession Golf Club. Since 1999, Duke and USC have combined to win nine of the past 16 NCAA titles.

Now both are going home.

Welcome, Baylor (ranked 12th) and Stanford (No. 11) to the big time. The cameras will be waiting for you on the first tee.

Stanford’s best finish at an NCAA Championship came in 2001 when the Cardinal finished runner-up to Georgia. Baylor is making its third NCAA Championship appearance. The Bears’ best showing was a tie for 16th in 2012.

“It’s a whole different atmosphere,” said Stanford’s Shannon Aubert, the 99th-ranked player in the country who downed 2013 NCAA champion Annie Park, 4 and 2.

Park hit her last two shots in college golf into the water on the 16th tee and conceded the match. It turned out to be the deciding point for Stanford, as Casey Danielson, playing in the final match, had built a large-enough cushion to defeat Kyung Kim.

The Trojans anchored their final two matches with USGA champions and still couldn’t survive the afternoon.

“I knew that I could’ve done better out there,” Park said as her eyes filled with tears. “I struggled.”

The most impressive part of Stanford’s victory was that the Cardinal beat USC without a point from Mariah Stackhouse, the Curtis Cup star who gave her team pointers on how to handle playing in front of TV cameras.

“If you’d told me that Mariah Stackhouse was going to lose, 6 and 5, and we would win,” Stanford coach Anne Walker said, “I’d say probably not.”

Walker’s third season as head coach started off well. Her team never finished outside the top four in the fall. She gave birth to daughter Emma on Dec. 11 and thought she’d get back to work midway through the spring season.

But as injuries ran rampant throughout the Cardinal lineup, Walker cut her maternity leave short.

Quirine Eijkenboom, known as “Q,” suffered a neck injury. Danielson and Lauren Kim struggled with sore backs. Aubert had surgery in early February to remove an ovarian cyst.

It wasn’t until the Cardinal headed to the Ping/ASU Invitational in mid-April that Walker’s team finally felt whole.

And then Danielson came down with a 24-hour flu bug on the first day. Kim woke up with it on Day 2. Stanford finished sixth.

Perhaps things would come together at Pac-12s in Boulder, Colo., Walker thought.

Ah, but who could predict that one of Stanford’s players, whom Walker said shall remain nameless, would leave five clubs back home in the club washer at the range?

She borrowed the head pro’s clubs for the practice round – different make and model – and hit it sideways. By the time her clubs arrived for Round 1, the mental damage had been done.

They placed seventh.

“Got to regionals and I kind of felt like there wasn’t any pressure on the kids,” Walker said.

They started off OK in St. George, Utah, and Walker addressed the team, reminding them of the adversity they had faced throughout the spring.

“From that moment forward, it seemed like everyone just got this deeper focus,” she said. “Yeah, we’re finally all healthy; we’ve all got our clubs. Let’s go.”

Speaking of clubs, Stackhouse put a new set of irons in her bag last week. She’d been fighting a consistent miss to the left and struggled with the odd shot that rocketed an extra 10 yards. Walker thought going a couple of degrees more flat would smooth out some of those issues.

Stackhouse finished sixth in the individual race. Sure she got steamrolled in the semis, but that was mostly due to a freshman who played lights out.

Walker placed Stackhouse in the anchor match, where she’ll face 12th-ranked Hayley Davis of Baylor.

Wednesday’s finale will be historic. We can only hope it will be riveting, too.

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