Once the last putt rolled into the 15th hole, Emily Fletcher didn’t hop into a golf cart for a ride back to the clubhouse. The Northwestern women’s golf coach chose to walk.
Arizona State had just won its eighth NCAA championship in women’s golf while denying the Wildcats their first. The Sun Devils’ Linnea Strom closed out Stephanie Lau 5 and 3 for a 3-1-1 win at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove.
“We wanted to be here, and we wanted to be a part of it,” Fletcher said. “But I don’t think on any level did we really, really dream that we would be sitting up here at this table with the bright lights and microphones.”
The runner-up finish was the best in program history, surpassing last year’s ninth-place finish.
The Sun Devils won the first two completed matches, with Olivia Mehaffey beating Sarah Cho 4 and 3 and Roberta Liti winning 5 and 4 against Janet Mao, the hero of the Wildcats’ semifinal win over USC on Wednesday morning. Kacie Komoto put the Wildcats on the board in the final with a 3 and 1 win over Sophia Zeeb.
It came down to two matches: Lau versus Strom and NU’s Hannah Kim against NCAA individual champion Monica Vaughn.
Kim held her own and finished 18 holes all square with Vaughn.
“It really taught me to grind it out, tough it out,” Kim said. “Regardless of who I was playing with, it was going to be a fight.”
After it was over, it was almost hard to tell which team won. The Wildcats cheered and laughed just as loudly as the Sun Devils a few feet away.
“We’re just very positive people,” Komoto said. “We like to have a good time, and we don’t like to take things too seriously. So we’re disappointed about it for sure, but we’re really proud of ourselves and how we endured it.”
Wednesday’s endurance test included a dramatic rally in the completion of Tuesday’s semifinals that were delayed by rain and then postponed because of darkness. The Wildcats trailed in four of five matches overnight but stormed back to defeat USC 3-2 when Mao took two of her final three holes in regulation and won on the 19th hole.
With friends, family and fellow Wildcats following them, it was hard for the NU golfers not to be happy. It was the largest crowd this team has seen. Easily more than 100 fans followed Kim by the end of her match, and even more were with Lau.
During the regular season, the only time the Wildcats play close to home is at the Windy City Collegiate Classic, played this year at the Glen Club in Glenview. Otherwise, they’re on the road. This was unlike any other weekend.
“It means the world to us,” Komoto said. “Being an hour away, I didn’t expect that many people to come, but they did. They showed up and they were loud. It was awesome.”
That was something Fletcher reflected on throughout the day. She knew her team had never felt such support. It’s what she wants the program to build off of more than anything.
So that final walk was about more than accepting defeat. It was about savoring the end of an amazing experience.
“I kind of wanted to hit the pause button and be able to take it in a bit,” Fletcher said. “Hopefully they’ll be able to do that, too.”