LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On a huge banner stretched across the back of the Persimmon Ridge clubhouse and outside the student-athletes lounge at the Louisville Downtown Marriott is the face of Nova Southeastern golfer Abbey Gittings.

In Friday’s third round of the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Championships, it was the face of pain.

NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP
Rabalais: Gut check for Gittings
Burnsed: Choate alone, but happy at tourney
Rabalais: Inspirational return to the course
Day One: Recap
Day Two: Recap
Leaderboards: Team | Individual
More: History | Champ Info
More: Selections Announced

Bothered all week by back trouble, Gittings, a junior from Tamworth, England, suffered severe back spasms with two holes to go. She managed to finish but did so in tears, immediately whisked up the hill to the clubhouse for treatment after signing for a third-round 6-over par 78.

Gittings was later taken to Bellarmine, host institution for the Division II National Championships Festival, for more treatment.

“She hit one of the most courageous shots I’ve ever seen,” Nova Southeastern coach Amanda Brown said, “out of the bunker on 18 over the water to set herself up for a par, crying the whole way.

“It was true determination.”

The round put Gittings one stroke back of freshman teammate Daniela Ortiz, who leads the championship at 7 over 224 after a third-round 79. Another NSU freshman, Lilliana Cammisa, is tied for third individually with Florida Southern’s Melanie Audette after her third consecutive steady 76 on the tough Persimmon Ridge layout.

As a team, Nova Southeastern is at 929, nine strokes clear of Florida Southern and 28 strokes ahead of third place Grand Canyon.

The Nova Southeastern Sharks are quite accustomed to swimming at the top of the leaderboard in these championships.

The Sharks have captured the past three NCAA team titles, and with a win Saturday would become the first program to win the Division II women’s championship four times. Florida Southern is the only program to win four Division II titles, the most recent in 2007.

But these Sharks come here this year as endangered species.

Normally, college teams have five players, discarding their highest score each round.

Nova Southeastern has no backup plan, no spare parts. The Sharks are playing as they have all spring with four players: Gittings, Ortiz, Cammisa and senior Claudia Wolf.

The situation is plain: if Gittings can play, Nova Southeastern can make Division II women’s golf history. If she can’t, then the Sharks will be unable to post a team score, and Florida Southern will have a fifth NCAA championship within its grasp.

“She’s going to have to play,” Brown said. “She told me in the middle of crying that she’s going to play.”

Then Brown added softly, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Whether it was a reference to Gittings courage or the situation – or both – remained unsaid.

“If anybody can do it, she can,” Brown said.

The only concession to her ailing back that Gittings was willing to allow Friday afternoon was to use a pull cart instead of carrying her bag as she usually does.

“She doesn’t like pushing it,” Brown said, “but she will have to [Saturday].”

The only four-round tournament these teams will play all year, the championship is usually an endurance test. More than a few players were heading for their cars Friday with ice packs on arms or legs or backs.

“Everyone has some sort of pain or injury they’re dealing with,” Brown said. “We’ve been playing a lot of golf. It’s from overuse and practicing hard, and it’s all coming to a head going into the last day of nationals.”

Brown smiles at the notion that women’s golfers aren’t regarded as tough athletes.

Her players are plenty tough, she said. But she is well aware there is little left in the Sharks’ tank, Gittings back notwithstanding.

“As a team we’re on our last leg here,” she said. “We’ve given ourselves to this course in every round.”

The question is, can they make it through one last round to claim another championship?