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Gabriella Then discusses national championship

Then won the U.S. Girls' Junior at Sycamore Hills Golf Club.

Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Gabriella Then of Upland, Calif., won her first U.S. Girls' Junior Championship on Saturday.

Californian holds off foe's charge to win US Girls' Junior title

Lakareber Abe of Angleton, Texas, battled back from five holes down but finished second.

Lakareber Abe showed heart, battling back from five holes down in the 36-hole final of the U.S Girls' Junior Championship.

But Gabriella Then didn't let that comeback – or the cheers for Abe in the gallery at Sycamore Hills Golf Club – rattle her Saturday.

Then won the championship 2 and 1 and was immediately inundated with calls, e-mails, tweets and congratulatory texts from across the nation and from some of her soon-to-be teammates at USC.

It was enough to cause her phone to freeze after she played the final round of her junior career.

"I finally did it," said Then, who is from Upland, Calif., and had been in a dozen United States Golf Association tournaments without winning.

A year ago, she was unhappy with several aspects of her game.

Just more than a week ago, she was still not happy. She felt she "had nothing to lose" and saw a new coach, who tinkered with her swing.

Now, she's a national champion.

But Abe, who is from Angleton, Texas, didn't make it easy.

On the 19th hole – the par-4 1st – Then birdied to go 5-up. Abe whittled down the lead, squaring the match with a par on the 32nd hole, the par-3 14th.

"You have to know the round is never over, the tournament is never over," Abe said. "And I showed that when I'm in a hole, I can pull myself out of it, and that's really important."

Then had a pivotal save on the ensuing hole, the par-5 15th, when she hit into a hazard and dropped at 210 yards out.

She was still able to halve by bogeying after Abe hit into a bunker.

"I had been thinking, 'Wow, she's fighting back,' " Then said. "She had the adrenaline running through her and was fighting back to get back to all square. Then I was saying, 'OK, last three holes, let's make something happen here.' "

On the 34th hole, the par-4 16th, Then's two-putt for par put her back up. And on the final hole, Then answered a terrific Abe chip to 6 feet with a 10-foot birdie putt to win.

In 117 holes of match play, Then led for 100 and never trailed. She entered the round of 64 seeded 44th after two days of stroke play.

Then and the 18th-seeded Abe, who are friends and roomed together at a couple of junior tournaments this summer, had never played a round together.

They almost never spoke Saturday, except to determine who was away and if a ball mark needed to be moved.

But the crowd of a couple hundred talked plenty, especially when Abe began her comeback.

"We had people going 'Lakareber, Lakareber,' " Then said, "and I just muted it out and stayed in the moment, stayed in the present, and just kept fighting her off."

Abe proved herself a winner, too, even if she didn't get the trophy.

"I thought I never quit out there and I'm proud of myself for that," she said.