SHOAL CREEK, Ala. – Led by medalist Janet Mao, Northwestern women's golf raced away from the field on Saturday to claim the 2016 NCAA Shoal Creek Regional Championship. The Wildcats turned in the three best rounds by any team (296-294-297=887) in the event to finish 18 strokes ahead of their nearest competition.
MORE: 2016 Shoal Creek NCAA Regional – RESULTS
"I just really tried to just stay patient," Mao said after the first victory of her college career. "Throughout the day I was just trying to stay patient. It's really hard out here, I got really lucky on 16 and 17, where I chipped it in, so it was good."
The performance clinched a berth for the Wildcats in the 2016 NCAA Women's Golf Championship on May 20-25 at Eugene Country Club in Eugene, Ore, Northwestern's fourth consecutive appearance in college golf's premier event.
"I can't say enough about our kids and the way they fought all week," head coach Emily Fletcher said following Saturday's final round. "I mean, the front nine played tough, we didn't get off to the best of starts, they just dug deep and fought hard to the very end."
"Our goal, as we talked yesterday, was to win the day," the Big Ten Coach of the Year continued. "I'm so proud of them."
The NCAA Regional win is a first in Northwestern history (men or women). The team's best previous finish at a Regional was second-place, earned last year in Raleigh, and also in 2000.
Mao's consistent play for three days earned her top individual honors, but her game went to a new level on the back-nine Saturday. She birdied No. 11, No. 13, No. 16 and No. 17 to steadily reel in the tournament leaders over the course of the afternoon. The rookie's nine birdies in three days ranked second in the field.
"What Janet (Mao) did in the closing holes was just phenomenal," said Fletcher. "The freshmen came through for us."
Mao only recently worked her way into the Wildcats starting lineup, with a brilliant run of play at the most important time of the year. She finished 22nd at the PING/ASU Invitational while competing as an individual, followed it up with a 12th-place result at the 2016 Big Ten Championships, and now her first collegiate win at the 2016 Shoal Creek NCAA Regional.
She was joined during Sunday's climb up the leaderboard by some special spectators.
"My mom and my brother came out, " said Mao. "They live about 2.5 hours away, so it was really nice to see them. Especially with Mother's Day being tomorrow, I'm really happy she got to see that."
Kacie Komoto finished in sole possession of fourth, two strokes behind Mao, with a 6-over 222. The junior finished the weekend with 40 pars, second in the field, to lead Northwestern's tournament-best 176 pars. The Honolulu native has three Top-4 finishes this season, to go along with an additional eighth-place result.
Sophomore Sarah Cho was the third member of the Wildcats inside the Top-10, earning a share of ninth with a 9-over 225. Her 39 pars over three days ranked third in the 96-player field.
Stephanie Lau, the 2016 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, turned in the steadiest round in the field on Saturday, with 16 pars and a birdie on her way to an even-par 72. She and Mao were two of only four players to finish the final round even, with nobody under par. The two freshmen did the majority of their damage on Shoal Creek's longest challenges, with Mao playing the Par-5s at 5-under, and Lau right behind her at 4-under.
Shoal Creek Club presented the stiffest challenge Northwestern has faced this season, with the average score more than six strokes above par (72) at 78.95, and climbing each day from 78.42 on Thursday, to 79.15 on Friday and 79.28 on Saturday.