Greg Hansen: Young, global Cats sit on the lip of greatness

2013-04-23T00:00:00Z 2013-04-23T09:43:26Z Greg Hansen: Young, global Cats sit on the lip of greatnessGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 23, 2013 12:00 am  • 

On May 23, 2014 at the Tulsa Country Club, Arizona's women's golf team will win the NCAA championship. Write it down. Greg Byrne will submit a work order requesting a red banner be put into place on National Championship Drive.

It's not a guarantee as much as it's a head's up. This is the next super team on campus.

The Wildcats come from all corners: Manon Gidali of France, Kendall Prince of Oregon. Janie Jackson of Alabama, Anna Kim of Canada, Patricia Garcia of Puerto Rico and Andrea Vilarasau of Spain.

"It's an eclectic group of young ladies," says UA coach Laura Ianello, who played on Arizona's 2000 national championship team. "I'm not forecasting we'll win anything, but they are so talented, so young."

This is the beginning; there's not an upperclass woman in the group.

When the No. 6 Wildcats opened play in the wickedly difficult Pac-12 Championships Monday in Los Angeles - Arizona is sixth with two days remaining - their lineup was entirely freshmen and sophomores.

"We beat No. 1 USC in the ASU tournament (two weeks ago), the strongest field we've played all year," says Gidali, who is Arizona's No. 1 player. "I think we will be at our best at the finish of the season."

Gidali speaks with a delightful French accent (she grew up and attended school in Paris) and, upon arriving in Tucson in January 2012, had difficulty speaking and understanding English.

Yet she won the first tournament in which she played, shooting 66-67-71, striking immediate comparisons to UA golf legends Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa.

Ianello knows what it takes to put together a national title contender. A runner-up at the 2000 U.S. Amateur, she played at Arizona during an era in which the Wildcats completed a 14-year run that delivered 13 top-10 finishes.

Now they're back, regrouping after a series of coaching changes from Todd McCorkle to Greg Allen to Shelley Haywood and finally to Ianello, who, as a rookie, interim coach in 2010, led Arizona to fifth place at the NCAA finals.

Here's how she put together the school's most immediate NCAA title contender:

• Gidali and her parents took a month to select a school, visiting USC, TCU, ASU and Arizona. A member of the French National team, Gidali was planning to attend Arizona State, but the Sun Devils goofed up, informing her they didn't have a full scholarship as promised.

"Another French girl, (All-Pac-12 golfer) Isabelle Boineau was here, and that helped with my communication issues," Gidali remembers. "I loved the sunshine. I committed before returning to Paris."

• Prince was the Big Ten freshman of the year at Ohio State in 2012, but sought a climate more suited to year-round golf. She visited Oregon, about 100 miles from her Lake Oswego, Ore., roots, and ASU, finally settling on Arizona.

• Jackson, who is from Huntsville, Ala., also wanted to play in warmer weather. She was a first-team prep All-American, a three-time Alabama state champ, who Ianello assumed would play in the SEC.

"I sent an email, asking if she had committed and was very happy when she said she was still available," Ianello remembers. "She's 6-feet tall, athletic, and carries her drives 270 off the tee. She has a terrific future; she's so talented she could win any tournament she enters."

• Vilarasau played in the 2011 British Girls championships, for her homeland, Spain. Ianello was there to scout Gidali, who unexpectedly didn't play.

"Without Manon in the field, I watched the other girls and I discovered Andrea," says Ianello. "How lucky can you get?"

• Garcia, from Puerto Rico, had five top-25 finishes as a Texas A&M freshman last season, averaging 75.53 per round. But she wanted to leave Texas and settled on UA.

• Kim was born in South Korea but raised in Toronto. She has been good enough to play in an LPGA Tour event. When her sister, Alexa, played at NAU, it established a connection to Arizona.

"I'll always do my darndest to get the best American recruits, but I also like a mixture of foreign players," says Ianello. "I played here with Lorena Ochoa from Mexico, Mar Garcia from Spain, Marisa and Christina Baena from Colombia; it was a good experience for me to learn other cultures. It is very educational."

Among UA's incoming recruits, 2013-14, is Jessica Vasilic, a Swedish National team player. A year later, Salpointe Catholic junior Krystal Quihuis

, a two-time state champ, has pledged to play for the Cats.

"We have the opportunity to be very good, but you've got to remember how good the Pac-12 is," says Gidali, who shot a team-best 74 in Monday's first round of the league championships. "If you have an off day, other teams will race past you. But we're just getting started."

Arizona has won seven Pac-12 championships dating to 1992, the latest under Ianello in 2010.

The countdown to No. 8, whether this week or next year, has begun.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com or on Twitter @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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