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NCAA Women’s Golf: Arizona grateful to be back in nationals after missing a year ago

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With three national titles, Arizona has one of the most successful women’s golf programs in the country. Coach Laura Ianello has been a part of two of those three championships, as a player in 2000 and coach in 2018.

But she’s also experienced the lows of collegiate golf like last season, when the Wildcats failed to qualify for nationals for the first time since 2017. That was the third time in her 17 years coaching the program, the last 13 as head coach, and missing out last year helped frame her reaction to the UA getting back in this year.

So did something former Arizona men’s basketball coach Sean Miller once told her.

“He said man, make sure you enjoy those highs, because you don’t realize how quickly they can turn around,” Ianello said. “When we do qualify, it’s like I have such a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for making it to finals. I feel such a sense of gratitude and appreciation for these young women, the fact that we’re back and we have a chance ... to win that national championship again, because man I tell you, this group, we’re going to get there and we are going to do amazing things. I just feel it.”

The 2023 NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship begins Friday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale. Arizona is one of 30 teams competing in the 6-day event, which begins with four rounds of stroke play before the top eight squads advance to match play.

The Wildcats reached match play in the last three nationals they’ve played in, claiming the title in 2018 when Haley Moore birdied a playoff hole to beat Alabama in Stillwater, Okla.

The 2021 team reached the semifinals, falling to eventual champ Ole Miss. Senior Gile Bite Starkute is the lone Wildcat remaining from that team, and it was her birdie putt in a playoff as a sophomore that advanced Arizona out of the quarterfinals.

“It was the most amazing experience of my life,” said Starkute, who plans to return for a fifth season in 2023-24.

Starkute said this team feels similar to the 2021 group in that it is starting to play its best golf down the stretch.

“We had a very strong ending to our season, going into the postseason,” she said. “At that point, we had nothing to lose and we were playing our hearts out. It was a great experience. We were basically a family at that time with the team. We cheered each other on and it was just great. I am so excited to go back. I know how it feels. And I want all of our freshmen and sophomores and juniors to get that feeling, because I know that they won’t forget it for the rest of their lives.”

Among those making their finals debut is freshman Julia Misemer, one of the most highly decorated recruits in program history. From Overland Park, Kansas, Misemer had her pick of colleges to play for but said Arizona provided her with the best opportunity to improve as a player.

“A lot of people say to go to a school where you can play and you you’re gonna make the lineup,” she said. “And I was kind of thinking, well, where’s somewhere I don’t know that I can play? Because that’s what’s gonna push me to get better, because it’s gonna take me improving to get to make that lineup. I just really liked how I felt like there was a great group of girls that would be pushing me to play my best.”

Misemer shot back-to-back 4-under par 68s on the final two days of the Raleigh Regional to finish at minus-8, tied for second overall. That helped Arizona shoot 7-under as a team that final round, winning the regional by two strokes over host NC State.

“We played really, really good golf,” Ianello said of Raleigh. “I don’t even think we’ve played our best golf yet.”

Ianello has compared Misemer to UA legend Lorena Ochoa, who won 12 tournament titles and was back-to-back NGCA Player of the Year in 2001-02 before going on to a pro career that has seen her win 27 LPGA titles including two majors. Demeanor, more than anything, is what has led to the comparison.

“In this day and age, a lot of golfers that we see are very, very hard on themselves,” Ianello said. “They’re very emotional on the golf course, they don’t compose themselves as well. And one thing we’ve seen from Julia, from day one when she got here, is that she’s so coachable. And on the golf course, if she makes a bogey, normally you can see the frustration on a player’s face, but she’ll just come right up to me and Coach (Justin Bubser) and be like, ‘I bogeyed the last hole, you know, no big deal.’

“Just to see that she doesn’t have this fear in her and she’s like, I’ll get a birdie back. She just has this positive, upbeat attitude, and she’s very confident in her process of her play. She knows her game, where you see that in great players, where they’re not indecisive. And that is one thing I can say about Julia is that she brings on adversity but with a such a good attitude, which is really difficult to find these days with these kids.”

This is the third year that Grayhawk is hosting nationals. The first was 2021, when Starkute shot 7-under over the final two rounds of stroke play to get Arizona into match play.

“This is our home state,” she said. “We will have a lot of fans, a lot of people supporting us there. And we’ve played Grayhawk. And we know the heat, we know how to deal with it. So that’s going to be very, very helpful.”