Driving west on the 10 Freeway, the USC women’s golf team sat in silence. Somewhere between Mesa, Ariz., where the Trojans were playing a practice round for the Clover Cup on March 12, and the state border, the news started to settle in.
The season was over.
No one knew what to say in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. Justin Silverstein sat behind the wheel of one of the team’s two cars.
“Everyone that was on this roster thinks this team had a pretty good chance to win a title, as good of a chance as anybody,” the USC coach said. “It’s just sad.”
After a lackluster fall in which USC didn’t win any of its four tournaments, the Trojans ended the shortened season at No. 1 in Golfweek’s rankings.
The team didn’t panic during the slow start. The Trojans were pacing themselves, junior Alyaa Abdulghany said. They were chasing an NCAA title, which USC last won in 2013.
That aspiration is now gone.
“It just kind of feels like we were preparing for nothing,” Abdulghany said three days after the NCAA announced its decision to cancel all winter and spring championships.
The Trojans were rounding into form with wire-to-wire victories at the Rebel Beach Showdown and the Bruin Wave Invitational, finishing the latter tournament in San Luis Obispo with just four players.
When junior Gabriela Ruffels had to withdraw in the first round because of an injury, USC couldn’t afford any mistakes as it didn’t have the opportunity to drop a poor score. Abdulghany got the news of Ruffels’ injury while on the course. The junior All-American remained confident.
“I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter,’ ” said Abdulghany, who placed sixth individually. “We still have the best four players out in the field and we’re going to make it happen this week.”
All four Trojans placed in the top 11. Amelia Garvey recorded her third straight fifth-place finish. The junior from New Zealand was playing “the best golf of her life,” Silverstein said.
Garvey’s emergence helped the Trojans overcome first-team All-American Jennifer Chang’s decision to go pro during the fall. Chang, a junior, was 11th in the World Amateur Golf rankings when she entered the LPGA Q-Series event in October. She finished ninth in the eight-round event to earn professional status.
The uncertainty surrounding Chang’s status scrambled the Trojans during the fall, Silverstein said. The lineup that returned all five starters from last season was in sudden disarray. They had to hold qualifying practice rounds to identify their third, fourth and fifth starters among a deep team. USC, with its preseason No. 1 ranking, settled for fifth-, second-, third- and fourth-place finishes during the fall.
The Trojans restarted the spring with a second-place finish at the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge, which led to consecutive wins to finish the year. Ruffels, the 2019 U.S. women’s amateur champion, won the Rebel Beach Showdown in Las Vegas, where the Trojans placed four golfers in the top five.
“In the spring, you saw a group that started to really settle in,” Silverstein said. “You saw some people’s games take off.”
The growth made the sudden stop even more gutting for the second-year head coach.
“This is the time of year that we usually hunker down as a team and we spend 20 hours a week together and all the time on the road,” Silverstein said. “It’s a very strange, surreal feeling that we have basically six months off until we compete again.”
From waking up at 5:05 every morning for 7 a.m. practices, Silverstein is now passing time by filing mundane expense reports, putting together the team’s schedule for next season — it’s not daunting, he assured — and catching up on “Westworld.” The third season of the HBO show premiered on March 15.
He also can’t help but think about the team’s return next season. The Trojans will replace seniors Allisen Corpuz, a top-50 amateur in the world, and Aiko Leong with high-school All-Americans Brianna Navarrosa and Christine Wang.
“We’re definitely reloading,” Silverstein said, “and we’ll be ready to go come August.”