University of Redlands’ women’s golf coach Jack Stewart saw only one outcome to this year’s NCAA Division III championship next month: It’s that the Lady Bulldogs would carve out this year’s national title.
Redlands’ sixth-year coach, the 73-year-old Stewart, was certain his Lady Bulldogs’ fully loaded squad would be good enough to improve upon this year’s Top 10 finish to win it all in 2021.
It all fell apart, of course, when college sports were canceled due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic that wiped out everything.
“We had a little team meeting on [Friday, March 13],” he said. “Almost everybody was in tears. They were devastated that their season was over.”
There was a lot to cry about. For openers, Redlands, ranked No. 1 in the NCAA Div. III West Region, had moved from No. 9 to fourth-ranked nationally. It was a huge jump.
Before shutting down their season, the Lady Bulldogs had just propelled themselves to a 15-shot win over Claremont-Mudd Scripps at San Dimas-based Via Verde Country Club.
Freshman Hannah Jugar, who didn’t finish the season, was still named first-team All-American. When the season concluded, she had a 73.66 scoring average, second in NCAA Division III.
Seems like eons ago when Jugar shot back-to-back rounds of 69, topping Redlands’ 595 total over 36 holes, in their season-opening SCIAC match.
Said Stewart: “In my heart of hearts, I think we would’ve won the national tournament this year. We’re loaded. We have five great players.”
Four of last year’s top NCAA finishers ⎯ Annie Hay, Kendall Nicholson, Mariah Moon and Dana Condon ⎯ each returned to this year’s roster. Keilee Bessho, last year’s top finisher, was a senior.
Jugar, who might play a little better than Bessho, could’ve been enough to lift Redlands to a higher finish at this May’s NCAA finals ⎯ canceled due to the pandemic.
This season was going well.
Stewart, for his part, was named West Region Coach of the Year for his team’s surge in the national rankings.
It all ended right when Redlands was setting up for a trip to Arizona on March 14-15 for the George Fox University Westbrook Invitational. It would have answered some questions.
“Six of the top 10 teams in the country would’ve been there,” said Stewart.
There was another planned trip to Georgia in which 15 of the nation’s top 20 teams would be present.
In other words, Redlands wasn’t ducking high-level opponents.
If Redlands’ roster wasn’t fully loaded for an attempted improvement over last year’s 10th place finish at nationals, then it’s close.
“Jugar has been No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation all year,” said Stewart, who had predicted she would be a first-team All-American.
He was right.
The scary part is this: Not only is Redlands’ entire roster set to return in 2021, Stewart has received commitments from four more soon-to-be-freshmen that would add depth to the Lady Bulldogs’ lineup.
He named possible players from Stockton, Temecula, Diamond Bar and from Louisville, Ky. all set to tee off for the Lady Bulldogs.
If not for the coronavirus hiccup, said Stewart: “We’d be going for a repeat next year.”
He doesn’t apologize, either, for his highly placed opinion of his own squad.
“I’m just an optimistic guy.”
There’s probably no real evidence to conclude that a senior-laden University of Redlands could overcome a highly talented Claremont-Mudd College team in a battle of NCAA-ranked teams.
Just days before the COVID- 19 assault wiped out college sports in March, Stags’ golfers knocked off the Bulldogs on their own home course in Beaumont, Tukwet Canyon, on Feb. 29-March 1.
Diego Cortes, Kyle Sharp and Josh Fambro each played their way into the top 10 finishers for Redlands.
Claremont, led by Edward Wu’s brilliant 66 on day one, had its top five scoring players among the top 12 finishers.
It’s worth noting that Cortes was the only senior among that trio of high placing Bulldog players. Six players off Redlands coach Jamie Zantua’s 10-man roster, however, are seniors.
Roll it back one season, however, to 2019 when Zantua, in his first season as coach, had the Bulldogs at the NCAA Division III championships.
Sixty-four teams. Redlands, 17th.
Said Zantua, who is an assistant professional at Redlands Country Club: “We made the cut. We finished strong. Getting those last two rounds was huge. They fought hard.
“Imagine that coming in my first year of coaching.”
A curious footnote: All but two of Zantua’s 2020 roster are Californians, a fact that the second-year Bulldog coach had nothing to do with, obviously, since he inherited his roster from previous coach Fred Hanover.
That’s direct contrast to the Lady Bulldogs, where Stewart has landed most of his roster from the Golden State, where golf is considered a gold mine for high school players.
Rest assured: Zantua is connected to a handful of players he’s looking to commit for 2021, including players from Hermosa Beach, Encinitas and nearby Temecula Chaparral. Two more might be transferring to Redlands, including a tournament champion from Las Vegas who is playing in Alabama.
It’s not like he’s seeking all Californians, he said. “My list goes out of the state.
“They know the weather. They know the courses we play on. Some of these guys play junior golf on these same courses.”