TULSA, Okla. -- Who are these orange-and-white-clad young women at the NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championship this week?
Not from Tennessee, Clemson or nearby Oklahoma State.
Those are different colors of orange and these women are a different story: the Fighting Camels of Campbell finally are, uh, over the NCAA tournament hump.
Playing a Division I final for only the second time and the first since 1997, the Camels earned their berth with an eighth-place finish in the East Region finals two weeks ago.
“I think we deserve to be here and I’m excited to see where we go,” Campbell senior captain Kaylin Yost said.
Four-time reigning Big South Conference champions, the Camels are paired with Florida and Northwestern in Tuesday’s opening round at Tulsa Country Club. They see no reason why they can’t continue to surprise the greater NCAA golf world.
“Certainly from top to bottom, this is the most talent that I’ve had the privilege of coaching,” said head coach John Crooks, now in his 23rd year at Campbell.
The Camels’ background — 17 NCAA tournament team appearances and three individual — is solid. They have won five of 12 tournaments this season and a combined 11 in the past two. They are also thrifty. Campbell ranks eighth nationally in birdies (405 through 12 events).
“Our goal to make it to nationals, and the last two years we’ve made it to regionals, but we’ve never made it,” said Yost, the Big South Conference player of the year. “Not that we haven’t been good enough, it’s just been some hiccups along the way. So for us to make it this year is an accomplishment and it shows that a lot. We worked hard this season and to have our long-term goal pay off, is kind of a blessing.”
Several weeks ago, Campbell (total enrollment for the Buies Creek, North Carolina-based school is 6,200) began NCAA tournament play ranked No. 17 in the East Region. It is ranked 42nd in the latest Golf World/Women’s Golf Coaches Association Division I Coaches’ poll (May 11). The Camels' emergence trumps years of NCAA regional frustration — getting over their own humps — which had grounded them in both rankings and opportunities.
“You do get satisfaction, and what this is, is what you’re doing and what you’ve done is probably right,” Crooks said. “You never know. ‘There are no books that say, this is what you do in this situation.’ Everything is kind of going by your instincts. Coming here, I think, there is pressure on the young ladies. I hope it’s not coming from me. At least I’m doing my best not to. This is about an experience for them that they’ll always have.”
A bit of a chip isn’t a bad thing. When the Campbell women earned their first NCAA final berth in 1997, Crooks said he, “went in as bright-eyed and big-eyed as any freshman. So I made all the mistakes then and tried to be perfect, tried to do an awful lot of things.”
Crooks wrongly downplays his contribution. His 75 tournament victories ranks second to Duke’s Dan Brooks (118) among active Division I women’s coaches. He’s a member of the National Golf Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame and a 16-time Big South Conference coach of the year honoree (12 for the women, four for the men; he coaches both squads).
“I believe coach’s goal for us to get a little better every day, and even if it’s putting or timing our short game,” Yost said. “I just feel like coach made a big deal about trying to get better every day, you know, leaving it up to us.”
This week’s Campbell lineup is Yost, sophomore Tahnia Ravnjak, junior Lisbeth “Lissie" Brooks and freshmen Louise “Lou-Lou” Latorre and Nadine White.
“Each one of them has their own skill set,” Crooks said. “Tahnia’s just a great closer. When it gets down to the last five or six holes, we kind of want her to have the ball. You talk to Kay and you know she’s kind of living a dream. She’s thankful for every golf ball she hits. And that kind of attitude, that’s catching and that’s pretty good.
“We have Nadine, who has an excellent short game. We have Louise, who grew up in Pau, France, and didn’t have any of the girls around to practice with, so she’s just learning how good she can be. And she’s just getting better all the time out there. And Lissie’s our hardest worker. So obviously they do everything pretty well.”
Brooks and Latorre are the Camels who hoarded enough ice and water to give Crooks an victory shower once their national-final berth was confirmed in Tallahassee. Early finishers at the East Region finals, Campbell players had to wait several hours to see whether they’d made the NCAA national-final cut.
“For some of us, I think it was, ‘is this real?’” Yost said. “And for me, it was kind of emotional because I was so happy. This is my last college tournament and I think it makes it that much more sweeter to be with my teammates at nationals.”
Yost’s mere presence is miracle stuff. A Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product, she overcame medical issues as an infant and wears a small hearing aid in each ear.
“I use the deaf card a lot, is what I say,” Yost said, grinning. “I don’t hear something I like — my parents, or something coach says — I’ll turn them off. It’s just who I am.”
That part of who she is was a secret weapon until 18 months ago.
“Before that, I’d turn off my hearing aids before every shot and it was kind of my advantage, to get into the zone,” Yost said. “It would quiet everything out. But about a year and a half ago, I got new hearing aids and it’s not as easy to turn them off, so I don’t turn them off.”
Now, Yost may be Campbell’s secret weapon.
“She’s the most humble person I’ve ever been around,” Crooks said of his senior captain. “She’s got game — don’t doubt that for a second. She’s got game and she’s a competitor. But when she’s playing golf, she’s going to be the first to compliment an opponent on a good shot, and going to be the first one, when they put the pin in at the end of the day, to hug them and kiss them and say she enjoyed playing with them, and she means it.”