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ATLANTA – No Jennifer Kupcho, no problem.
Not to take anything away from Kupcho, who capped her storied Wake Forest career by leading her team to a national runner-up finish last May, but the Demon Deacons are proving that life after their star player does, in fact, go on.
And in a big way.
Entering this week’s East Lake Cup ranked fourth in the country, Wake Forest closed its stellar fall with a convincing 4-1 victory over Auburn in Wednesday’s final. With three wins heading into the break, the Demon Deacons have the look of a national-title contender yet again.
“The resilience, the grit, all of those words you see on the front of self-motivation books,” Wake Forest coach Kim Lewellen said. “That’s what they have.”
In some ways, Kupcho is responsible for that. The players who played alongside her last season – senior Swing Liu, junior Emilia Migliaccio, sophomore Vanessa Knecht. The freshmen who looked up to her – Rachel Kuehn and Lauren Walsh. They watched, they learned, and now they’re performing on their own.
“Jenn left a precedent,” Lewellen said. “They expect to be playing that well and to have that acts as motivation when they’re at practice. She’s left a talent legacy that they’ve all wanted to continue, and they’re doing that.”
While Wake may not have an Annika Award frontrunner at the moment, this team is certainly deeper than last year’s squad. Migliaccio chose to not take advantage of an exemption into second stage of LPGA Q-School, instead focusing on filling the leadership void left by Kupcho. Liu had three top-6 finishes this fall. Knecht had two, including an individual victory at the East Lake Cup.
But the key has been the emergence of the newcomers. Kuehn captured the Annika Intercollegiate in her first start last month and leads the team at No. 13 in Golfstat’s rankings. Before heading to Atlanta, Walsh, who Lewellen calls a “very professional” freshman, had a team-high three top-10s and followed a hard-fought tie against Arizona star freshman Vivian Hou on Tuesday by earning the deciding point in the final with a 3-and-1 victory over Auburn’s best player Julie McCarthy.
Coincidentally, Walsh and McCarthy, who is two years older, come from the same club, the Island Club in Dublin, and share the same coach, Shane O’Grady.
“She’s always been one of the players who I looked up to,” Walsh said of McCarthy.
This time, though, she beat her international teammate, following Migliaccio’s 1-up win over Megan Schofill and Liu’s 5-and-4 rout of Kaleigh Telfer. Kuehn chipped in with a 3-and-2 victory over Mychael O’Berry in the anchor match. The only person who didn’t win Wednesday, Knecht, took the individual title on Monday.
“Every single person has been in contention to win an event this fall,” Lewellen said. “To have that in your top 5, it’s exciting as a coach.”
Added Walsh: “We’re all good players and we showed this week that we can win at any time.”