And, like the season, earning a berth in the NCAA Championship tournament, and doing it to show their respect for their seriously ill coach, was also a challenge.
Playing as the host team at the NCAA Regional on their home course, the Auburn University Club, the Tigers rallied from a disappointing first round on Thursday and overcame a slow start on Saturday to earn the eighth and final qualifying spot for a trip to the nationals, which will be held May 21-24 in Athens, Ga.
Dedicating their play to their head coach, Kim Evans, the Tigers did what they needed to do in the third and final round of the 24-team regional and qualified with three strokes to spare over ninth place Tennessee.
On hand to watch the Tigers tee off on Saturday and then come off the course on the 18th hole, Evans made her first appearance at the three-day tournament that she had been looking forward to for more than a year since it was announced that Auburn would be a host for event.
Coach Kim Evans gets a hug from junior Marta Sanz at the 18th hole on Saturday.
Currently undergoing treatment for recently discovered ovarian cancer, the highly-successful Auburn coach was elated with her team's performance, an unexpected result based on how the season has played out. The Tigers got into the regional as just the 14th seed of the 24 teams who received bids into the NCAA East Regional, but played some of their best golf of the season to earn a trip to the nationals.
Evans said the players deserve all of the credit for reaching one of their major goals and not letting the news of their coach's ovarian cancer treatments or her leave of absence from coaching affect them.
"With what happened to me, I didn't want it to over-shadow anything they did, but I couldn't not tell them because they would kill me if I didn't," Evans said. "They did it all.
"The last two weeks they have run their own practices, they have run their own workouts, they have kept care of themselves," said Evans, who has led the Tigers to seven SEC Championships since returning to her alma mater to take over as head coach 20 years ago.
"They did a fantastic job in the classroom," Evans noted. "We had some really good grades and they came out here and got it done. They regrouped after that first day. Yesterday marked an excellent round and today held on and fought it through."
The Tigers were in 12th place after shooting an 11-over-par 299 in round one. They improved to a four-under-par 284 in round two to move into seventh place and followed that with a 294 on Saturday to finish eighth.
Coming off back-to-back conference championships seasons, the 2012-13 team was not expected to struggle like it did.
"Sometimes I call them the Bad News Bears, but this team has this really unique personality," Evans says. "They are a very aggressive team so when we are on we are strong, and when we are off it seems like, ‘where's Auburn?'
"I can't explain this team," Evans added. "I think the last year they were kind of my Seabiscuit. If you saw the movie or read the book, he kind of slept in a little late, he ate all of the time and laid around. They like to start late, they like input in their practices, every minute of the day is a laugh."
Evans pointed out that the Tigers had been showing signs of being able to play better golf prior to teeing off at the regional. "We have grown in so many ways," she said. "It was just a matter of time before they put together the tournament they needed to."
The player who led the Tigers on the course in the regional, junior Marta Sanz, came through with a three-under-par 69 on Saturday. Sanz said she was thrilled to see her coach show up for the early morning tee time for the Tigers and then return to the course later in the day after taking a nap to have enough energy to be there as her players finished their round on the 18th hole.
"It is rough to see her walking that way in those conditions, but I am really happy she could make it out here and we are doing this for her," said Sanz, a second team All-SEC selection for a second straight season.
Sanz posted a good score even though she wasn't hitting the ball nearly as well as she did in round two when she shot a 68. "The first three holes I struggled to put it on the green and I kept making putts for par and that kept me going," Sanz said. "The second nine I made three greens and three birdies.
"I am really excited although it was a completely different round than yesterday," Sanz said. "Today I couldn't hit my irons at all, but my putter was working, and when your putter is working you should be low and that is what I did."
The junior credited advice from her older sister, former Tiger golfer Patty Sanz, with getting her going after an opening day 77. "She helped me a lot after the first round when I struggled. I was really frustrated. She always calms me down and she is really good with my mental game."
Danielle Downey, Auburn's student assistant coach who led the Tigers with Evans undergoing treatment, said qualifying for the nationals is very meaningful to her and the players, and noted it was a group effort
"That round by Marta is very impressive," Downey said. "I am just proud of them--they all contributed."
In addition to the 68 from Sanz on Saturday, the Tigers got scores of 74 from Carlie Yadloczky, 75 from Diana Fernandez, 76 from Victoria Trapani and 78 from Jamie Yun.
Carlie Yadlockzy was a steadying influence for the Tigers at the NCAA regional with rounds of 74, 72, 72.
It was Evans who had convinced Downey, a former LPGA pro, to return to Auburn to finish her degree and help coach while doing it. Evans has high praise for the former Tiger's performance as the stand-in head coach.
"Danielle is probably one of my most loyal past players," Evans pointed out. "She has helped me out a lot over the last month. She makes the best chicken noodle soup I have been living off for the last week. I trust her. She knows the game and I trust her with the kids. The kids trust her and they know I trust her. We are just one big family."
Evans said she hopes to be able to rejoin the team for the nationals later this month. "I will definitely go if I can. I don't know. I am going to do exactly what my doctors tell me to do and I won't know anything until Wednesday. I hope there is a way. I hope I am not bed-bound. If there is a will there is a way.
"I wouldn't go over there and kill myself, but I will definitely, if I can, do something like I did today," Evans said. "There is nothing wrong with going out and watching them tee off and coming back at the end of the day and seeing them finish up, but I am obviously going to work with my doctors at UAB and see whatever type of treatment is ahead of me and go from there."
Evans said she appreciates the support she has received from her former players, the athletic administration at the university, which she noted "has her back," as well as others in the Auburn community and in the collegiate golf community, where the coach is well respected around the country.
Evans notes that going through surgery and learning that she still has a serious battle to fight with cancer has reminded her of how fortunate she has been to be able to coach a game that she loves.
"I have learned more in the last month than I have learned in the last 26 years of coaching," she said. "In fact, I think I can actually enjoy it.
"There is so much more to this game than the stuff that we worry about. It is Jamie (freshman walk-on Jamie Yun) who comes through that second day, it is Vic (sophomore Victoria Trapani) dancing through her with her pom poms, it is Carlie (senior Carlie Yadloczky) making a statement and the kids following, and it is Marta (Sanz) and Diana's (junior Diana Fernandez) passion that will tear down a door, and all of our other players coming back to watch them play. I am excited I still get to coach."
Whether or not she will be with her team at the nationals in Athens, Ga., Evans is eager to continue doing what she does. "I always hope I can coach better every year, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to be able to coach with different priorities, different goals in mind," she said.
Downey, who earned her picked up her AU degree last weekend, said she is excited for Evans and for the players that the Tigers will get a chance to compete in women's collegiate golf's biggest event at the NCAA Championship.
The student assistant coach said that the team's play at the regionals could be a result of watching how their head coach has handled a tough situation personally and a tough season for her players. "Maybe that is something they have learned," she said. "When you face adversity you don't back down--you just get after it. They hung in there and we are going to nationals."