Comeback story: Emilia Migliaccio the centerpiece of Wake's NCAA winning script
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Emilia Migliaccio and her fiancé, Charlie Doran, met in a writing class their freshman year at Wake Forest. So, it was only fitting that five years later, with Doran cheering her on, Migliaccio would craft a comeback story for the ages.
A quick synopsis:
Team struggles in national championship.
Star player quits competitive golf.
Team again falters in postseason.
Star player returns to lead team to national title.
“Complete full circle,” Doran said. “After six years, it’s just beautiful that this is playing out in front of me right now.”
With the 24-year-old Migliaccio back in the fold after a year away, the Demon Deacons captured their first NCAA Division I women's golf title in program history with a 3-1 victory over USC on Wednesday at Grayhawk Golf Club. The long-awaited triumph came after two straight seasons of heartbreak in the Arizona desert – the first being Migliaccio's original senior year, where Wake Forest collapsed on the final day to miss match play, and the second without Migliaccio, as the Demon Deacons whiffed on the 54-hole cut altogether.
Match scoring from finals of NCAA DI Women's Golf Championships
The third time, though, was as charming as the ultra positive, always smiling Doran, who popped the question 14 months ago on the same trail where he first told Migliaccio he loved her.
“The past two years, everything happens for a reason,” Wake Forest senior Rachel Kuehn said. “And if it took the last two years to get us where we are today, it was all worth it.”
Likely no one feels more validated than Migliaccio.
When she departed Grayhawk two years ago, Migliaccio figured she was done with college golf despite an extra year of eligibility at her disposal. Having already spurned the idea of turning professional, she flew straight to Olympic Club to cover the U.S. Women’s Open, her first event working for Golf Channel. A busy summer of reporting ensued, as did graduate school with Migliaccio returning to Wake Forest last fall to pursue her master’s in communication.
But back on campus, Migliaccio couldn’t stay away from the golf facility. When she wasn’t on the road or studying, she was hitting balls, sharpening her short game, stroking putt after putt.
“She still grinded on her game,” Doran said. “That was her outlet.”
Then came the dream.
It was early September, and Migliaccio awoke one morning having just imagined herself back competing for the Demon Deacons. She told Wake Forest head coach Kim Lewellen about the nighttime vision later that day on the practice range, a dead giveaway, in Lewellen’s mind, that Migliaccio was having second thoughts.
“I told her, ‘Well, if you want to play, I’ve got a spot for you,’” Lewellen recalled.
Migliaccio didn’t answer Lewellen immediately, instead deliberately weighing the offer. Meanwhile, Lewellen was entertaining a recruit and needed a quick decision. Finally, Migliaccio called Lewellen with good news: She’d sit out a full season before rejoining the Demon Deacons for the 2022-23 campaign and one final shot at a national championship.
“Sorry, recruit,” Migliaccio says now.
“Golf has a funny way when you take a break of making you fall right back in love with the game,” Kuehn said, “and I know Emilia, and I know that she doesn’t like to leave things unfinished.”
As Migliaccio slotted back into a potent lineup that included two other top-30 amateurs in Kuehn and sophomore Carolina Lopez-Chacarra, Wake Forest began last fall as the consensus main threat to Stanford’s national-tile defense. But at the same time, there were questions whether the Demon Deacons had what it took to finally conquer their Grayhawk demons.
Lewellen’s message to her players from the get-go was to not worry about the past and instead focus on solutions. So, with Migliaccio leading by example, they worked tirelessly, each with an eye on the desert, straightening out their drivers, hitting their chips closer, getting cozier with their lag putting. Lewellen also front-loaded the team’s spring schedule, giving her players more than a month off leading into the ACC Championship – in past years, she’d seen her squads run out of gas in the extreme heat, and the extra rest would allow this bunch to arrive in Scottsdale earlier than usual to adjust to the elevation and scorching temps, and still have plenty in the tank for a demanding NCAA run.
“Everything we did,” Kuehn said, “we did it with Grayhawk in mind.”
The fruits of their labor showed early and often. Kuehn won twice individually while senior Lauren Walsh matched her with five top-5s. Migliaccio was rejuvenated and steady, not finishing outside the top 25 through regionals. And as a group, the Demon Deacons collected seven stroke-play titles, including at the Jackson T. Stephens Cup, where Wake Forest clipped Stanford by seven shots – a seminal moment at Seminole, even if the Cardinal got revenge in the match-play final that week.
“That gave us the confidence that our good was as good as anyone,” Wake Forest assistant Ryan Potter said.
Wake Forest leans on each other to win title
Stanford might’ve flexed its muscles early at nationals, riding two-time NCAA individual champion Rose Zhang to a third straight No. 1 match-play seed. But Wake Forest remained poised. Prior to Monday’s final round of stroke play, two Demon Deacons showed up to a team meeting at the host hotel wearing their bathrobes and sunglasses. Wake Forest then went out and comfortably grabbed the third seed, 24 shots inside the top eight.
Migliaccio sputtered over the final 36 holes, shooting 75-78 to finish T-58, and then dropped her match against last-minute substitute Kaylah Williams in Wake Forest’s quarterfinal bout with Florida State, which the Demon Deacons put away with a 20-hole victory by Kuehn.
Despite Migliaccio’s struggles, Lewellen still believed that her leader, the one they playfully call “Granny,” was “going to do everything she could to help us bring this home.”
“She’s our rock, on and off the golf course,” Potter added. “When she’s around, our other players know everything’s going to be OK. That’s why we put her out first.”
In the semifinals against Texas A&M, Migliaccio led off and gutted out a 2-and-1 win over Zoe Slaughter. Banking on another tone-setting performance, Lewellen and Potter again threw out Migliaccio’s name first during the final pairings, leaving USC with the option to match with any of its five players. Trojans head coach Justin Silverstein opted for Cindy Kou, whom Migliaccio led the entire way, going out with a bang by sinking a 12-footer for birdie at No. 14, nearly holing her approach at No. 15 and closing out the match, 4 and 2, with a winning par at the par-3 16th.
"I’ve never seen Charlie cry – he’s just a really happy person – but when I finished my putt on 16, his eyes were red," Migliaccio said. "And it was just the coolest thing for him to see me and for him to be so proud of me."
Added Doran: "I encouraged her to give [college golf] one more chance because I knew that she was going to be great, and she knew that. ... She knew what was on the line today, and she was so determined."
Migliaccio wasn't alone. With their freshness wearing off after a grueling, two-match day on Tuesday, the Demon Deacons retreated that night to the hotel pool deck, where Potter’s wife had set up makeshift ice baths – five kiddie pools, 20 gallons of water, 20 bags of ice. The five players would plunge back and forth between ice water and the nearby hot tub. It worked. Kuehn and Walsh, like Migliaccio, came out running in the final; Kuehn routed fellow Curtis Cupper Amari Avery, 6 and 4, and Walsh built a 5-up lead on Briana Navarrosa, who a day earlier had knocked off Zhang, before hanging on for the deciding 3-and-2 victory.
“I really think we emptied the tank against Stanford,” Silverstein said. “But we knocked off the No. 1 team in the country, the No. 4 team in the country (South Carolina), and lost to the No. 2 team in the country. That’s a pretty good week.”
When Walsh’s tap-in par putt was conceded on No. 16, Migliaccio and most of her teammates rushed the green, embracing Walsh, before quickly sprinting off, through the desert and toward the 17th green, where junior Mimi Rhodes, arguably the team’s MVP this week despite needing an IV on Monday night, was 2 up on Christine Wang. Rhodes wouldn’t get the chance to complete the 3-0 week as she, too, was eventually mobbed by her fellow Demon Deacons.
For the next half-hour, the Wake Forest coaches and players, decked out in championship gear, posed for pictures with their prized NCAA hardware. Then their families, friends, support staff, even former coach Dianne Dailey, who for three decades sought a national title, joined in the emotional photo opp.
At one point, Doran and Migliaccio shared a kiss before Doran reminded his fiancée: “Exactly one month!”
Yes, their wedding is June 24, in Raleigh, North Carolina, where many of those celebrating on Grayhawk’s penultimate green would gather again to witness the future Mr. and Mrs. Doran’s nuptials. "There’s so much good in my life right now," Migliaccio said, "and I’m just so grateful that the Lord has given me so many great people around me."
Plans are all finalized – with the final detail being secured Wednesday.
“We were missing a centerpiece,” Doran said, staring at the trophy. “Got a good one now.”