NCAA women's golf | USC remains in title hunt without individual champ Doris Chen

EAST MANATEE -- Losing a senior leader who captured the NCAA individual national championship as a junior isn't an ideal situation.

But the University of Southern California women's golf team didn't lose focus.

Instead, the Trojans used their depth to replace a top-notch golfer in Bradenton's Doris Chen to produce a steady spring campaign that included winning the regional in Utah and earning a spot in the NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championship, which begins Friday at The Concession Golf Club.

"Everybody in our lineup has won a tournament," USC head coach Andrea Gaston said. "... It's a young team, but I still think that our experience can help us be near the top."

Chen, an IMG Academy alum who won the 2014 NCAA individual national title, has dealt with a high ankle sprain and a lingering back injury that kept her out of the USC lineup this spring.

"It just kept bothering her quite a bit, and we just never felt she was quite ready to play," Gaston said. "... It was really hard, because we won five events this year and when you've got depth, it got to the point where I know Doris can play. There's no question. The hard part is ... is she ready to play in six or seven days straight after only having one rep this spring? And that was a hard decision I had to make. Based on the injury and her not playing, I just felt that the five that had been playing had all contributed and I just said, 'I've got to go with these guys.'"

The Trojans were buoyed by the emergence of Amy Lee, a freshman who early-enrolled this spring after graduating from high school in the fall. Lee won her first collegiate start in February and tied for the lowest score on the team at the Pac-12 championship.

Meanwhile, three of USC's starting five are making a return trip to Manatee County. Karen Chung, Annie Park and Gabriella Then played the American Junior Golf Association's Rolex Girls Junior Championship in 2012 when it was contested at The Concession Golf Club.

"It's good to see it again," said Then, a sophomore. "Things have changed; it's tougher conditions than last tournament here."

That familiarity could help USC this week. USC also has recent postseason success to draw from.

The Trojans have won three national championships as a team since 2003, the most recent one coming in 2013. Last season, they fell two shots shy of Duke's winning total.

This year, a new format will pit teams in a match-play competition following four stroke-play rounds. The quarterfinals and semifinals are slated for May 26 with the finals scheduled May 27.

To get there, USC will have to get adjusted to the firm and fast Bermuda greens at The Concession as well the humid weather on the Suncoast.

"It's getting comfortable, finding your rhythm," Gaston said. "We only had the one practice round, so I always think that you have to learn something about the golf course each day so that it becomes a little friendlier. Because next time you see it, you can be a little bit overwhelmed. There's 18 really good holes here, and so I think you've got to just find something that appeals and just continue to try to learn the course."

Gaston pointed to defending national champion Duke, Arizona and LSU as some other top contenders this week.

But Gaston's group has confidence to compete for a national championship after earning a six-shot victory at regionals.

"I feel like a lot of us have really been working hard all semester," Then said. "We've really fixed those little, I guess, mistakes that we made earlier and clicked together as a team."