Promising Bears Swinging Ahead

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In today's era of big-ticket free agency, new professional sports teams can become successful much faster than in years past.

The No. 11 Cal women's golf team, which has not shelled out millions of dollars for any key signings lately, has added two impact freshmen and tapped a wealth of international talent.

However, the Bears' quest to become a contending program has been a gradual one.

Now in its eighth year of existence, Cal is poised to challenge for the Pac-10 title.

"For three or four years, we've known that we're a really solid program," says head coach Nancy McDaniel, the only coach the Bears have ever had. "This year we've really elevated ourselves."

The accomplishments speak for themselves-three wins in four starts, a threepeat at the Oregon State Invitational and six golfers with stroke averages less than 76. Each achievement is a first for the Bears.

The most disappointing part of Cal's season so far is that the team must wait until February to resume tournament play.

The Bears' success story starts with McDaniel.

A decorated player in her own right, she was an All-American at Washington and enjoyed a professional career that took her around the world. She spent time on the Women's European, Ladies Asian, and Players West tours.

However, her quest of reaching the LPGA Tour was never met.

"I gave myself a five-year plan, and if I wasn't at the level I wanted to be, then I would pursue other options," says McDaniel.

One of those other options appeared as a help wanted ad in Golf World magazine in 1994.

Cal was looking for a coach for its new women's golf program, and McDaniel decided to apply.

"There was a lot of interest for the position but my interview came at a time when there was still an opportunity for the job," remembers McDaniel.

The Bears showed flashes of promise in their early years, but were unable to play their way into the NCAA Tournament.

Cal earned its first NCAA berth in the 2000-2001 season, the same year McDaniel was honored as Pac-10 Coach of the Year.

Once the Bears discovered what was necessary to make it to the NCAA Championship, they sharpened their game and their focus. Cal won three times last year and established school records in almost every major statistical category.

The first half of the 2002-2003 season has shown the rest of the nation, as well as the team itself, that Cal is for real.

"One of our goals was to win three or four tournaments in the fall," says senior co-captain Vikki Laing. "To carry out that goal is amazing."

Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment this year, and arguably in the history of the program, was winning the Stanford Pepsi Intercollegiate, which featured one of the strongest fields of any fall event, with No. 1 Arizona and then-No. 2 Vanderbilt.

"We had won tournaments with good fields, but before Stanford we hadn't won a tournament with a major field," says McDaniel.

The performances of Laing and senior co-captain Ria Quiazon enabled both golfers to finish in the top five.

"Ria and I have played Stanford's course so many times," Laing said. "To beat some of the best teams in the country was a big turning point."

Quiazon described her final round as one of the crowning achievements of her collegiate career.

"It feels good," says Quiazon. "This one is just really special because it's at Stanford."

The win at Stanford catapulted Cal into its final tournament of the fall, the Kent Youel Invitational in Kapolei, Hawaii. The Bears blew away the field amid the strong trade winds, beating No. 24 UCLA by 18 shots.

In winning its third tournament, Cal once again rewrote the record books, this time breaking the 54-hole team scoring record by 12 strokes.

Freshman Sophia Sheridan led the field by one shot heading into the final round, but stumbled with a four over-par 76. She still finished fifth.

"I've never been in the top 10 of any United States tournament," says Sheridan, originally from Guadalajara, Mexico. "I was really nervous."

Sheridan is one of two freshmen in Cal's starting rotation, which runs seven players deep. The other newcomer is Mika Takayama, who is third on the team with a 74.6 stroke average.

"I was having a little trouble at first," says Takayama. "But after a while everything got a little easier and I started settling down."

McDaniel thinks so highly of Takayama that she believes the freshman from Alameda High School could have played for the Bears when she was a junior golfer.

Together, Takayama and Sheridan compose arguably the best freshman class the team has ever had.

"The freshmen are pretty much right there with us," says Laing. "It's great for the seniors because it takes a lot of pressure off us."

Cal's ability to recruit strong golfers to such a young program is a testament to the effort of the coaching staff and the opportunities provided on campus.

"We've tried to find people who love Cal and want to stretch their independence," says McDaniel. "We have been blessed with great, mature players."

This year's squad can be seen as a microcosm of the growth of golf itself into a global game. Three of Cal's players came directly from outside the United States, as far east as New Zealand and as far north as Scotland.

Among a team of 10 players, eight different languages are spoken fluently, including Tagalog, Korean, German and Japanese.

"Players have had fun on road trips trying to teach other words from different languages," says McDaniel.

With all of the success Cal has enjoyed in the fall, it is hard to believe that the Bears have yet to crack Golfweek's top 10 rankings.

Arizona, Washington, and USC, all Pac-10 stalwarts, have remained in and around the top 10 for most of the year despite not matching Cal's tournament performances early in the year.

Nevertheless, the Bears are focusing on their golf and not their ranking.

"I'm not really worried about rankings," says McDaniel. "They don't mean much until March."

Laing, who is poised to break her own school stroke average record of 74.5, thinks that setting even higher goals in the spring will elevate Cal to the top of the Pac-10.

"We want to win the Pac-10, or just win every single tournament," says Laing. "We have the potential."

McDaniel is happy to be a part of a program with a budding reputation, not to mention the fact that she has been there from the beginning.

"We keep improving each year," says McDaniel. "That's what's so much fun."


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