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Cal (Pa.) has international flair

| Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 10:24 p.m.
California University Athletics
Freshman Carla Maestre, who hails from Venezuela, led the Cal (Pa.) women's golf team in scoring during the regular season with a 79.4 average and qualified for the NCAA championship.

Since MerriLyn Gibbs started the Cal (Pa.) women's golf team nine years ago, the program has earned a sterling reputation. Eight straight trips to NCAA regionals and four appearances in the NCAA finals will do that.

The team has built such notoriety that Gibbs' recruiting no longer is restricted by U.S. borders. This year's team, which finished fifth at the NCAA super regional Tuesday, has one player who attended high school in the U.S.: Mercedes Epondulan, a walk-on from Allderdice.

The rest of the roster reads like the United Nations' roll call: France, Venezuela, the Philippines, Singapore, South Africa and Canada.

Gibbs said her goal is to create a national power. But convincing international players to become part of the effort wasn't easy.

“There was no name. There was no reputation,” she said. “We weren't listed on Golfstat or Golf Digest or Golf World as a top program in the nation.”

As Cal's profile began to rise — the Vulcans were in the top 25 six of the past seven years — Gibbs was able to expand her search. She relies heavily on recruiting services and websites, and with the team's success, players have started contacting her.

That was the case for France's Marine Verchere, Cal's lone senior. She used a recruiting service to find a school in America, and though she had several choices, she decided on Cal.

“I saw that they were really, really good. I thought that would be a great challenge to join that team,” said Verchere, who will graduate Saturday. “I thought it would make me a better golfer, and … every part of my game really improved by coming here.”

Verchere went from seldom being in the lineup in her first three seasons to Cal's top finisher (tied for 10th) in its final regular-season tournament this spring.

Freshman Carla Maestre, meanwhile, figures to be a mainstay in Gibbs' lineup for the next three years.

Gibbs discovered the Venezuelan's golf resume online and, after researching her background and watching video, offered her a chance to play at Cal.

When recruiting players from overseas, Gibbs has to rely largely on instinct since she doesn't have the chance to see them play in person. Her instincts about Maestre have been right.

Maestre, who stands just 5-foot-1, is the Vulcans' longest hitter as well as their top scorer (79.4 average). She'll represent Cal in the NCAA Division II finals after finishing tied for sixth at the super regional.

“I try to find people who I think have the same vision as me, which is, ultimately, you want to win a national championship,” said Gibbs. “These girls are coming here because that's what they want, too.”

Blending their golf talents has worked well. So, too, has blending their cultures. The players have been able to create a bond beyond that of mere teammates.

“It's really cool actually,” Maestre said. “We're all different, but at the end, we all complement each other in a certain way. In the end, we'll learn something different.”

“Because we're all international, we can create a family with all of us,” added Verchere. “We can't have this experience anywhere else.”

With the majority of the team having three more years together, Gibbs is hopeful that this group can grow into her much-sought-after national title contender.

Verchere won't be around to see if that happens. But she believes Gibbs and her program are on the right track.

“I feel like there's a lot of potential,” she said. “If they keep on working as hard as they do, I feel like they could do really, really good things in the future.”

Chuck Curti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at ccurti@tribweb.com.

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