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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Golf

Women’s Golf makes history despite the odds


Fiona Legesse-Sinha | The Cougar

A brand new sports team will tend to struggle during its opening season. Its staff tends not to have the experience or history to attract big names, forcing the team to start small and slowly build itself up.

There are far more stories like the Houston Texans’, who had five losing seasons starting out, than the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who went to the Stanley Cup in its first year of existence.

But UH’s Women’s Golf team has taken a path rarely walked and won two conference championships and made four NCAA Regional appearances in its first five years.

As unlikely as it was, head coach Gerrod Chadwell said he was never in doubt.

“I never saw it not happening,” Chadwell said. “There was no blueprint to it that was a fail proof plan. A lot of it was hard work … we got the right kids to buy in and they developed with everything we did at practice.”

Building a program

Chadwell said a lot of the team’s success stems from being able to compete at high level events that offer exposure and experience.

“Being invited to those tournaments when we started the program was huge because you have to be invited,” Chadwell said. “You can’t just say you want to play in Texas’ event or we want to go to A&M event.”

Chadwell gained connections and reputation in the golf world from his time at Oklahoma and Redlands Community College.

As the head coach at Redlands, Chadwell won NJCAA Coach of the Year, the Team NJCAA National Championship, and Individual National Championship with golfer Nicola Race in both 2008 and 2009.

After that, Chadwell joined Oklahoma as an assistant coach and helped the Sooners become a top program in the nation. In 2012, then sophomore Chirapat Jao-Javanil won the NCAA National Individual Championship for Oklahoma with Chadwell and Co. beside her.

“Chadwell has done an awesome job at developing the talent that we’ve got, building the schedule and competing against some of the best teams in the country,” said Jonathan Dismuke, UH’s director of Golf.

Chadwell was able to secure a tough schedule, which has helped the team be selected for NCAA Regionals.

Another boost for the Cougars was the hiring of Mary Michael Maggio, who is now director of Operations for Texas A&M’s women’s and men’s golf teams, as assistant coach of the Women’s Golf team.

Maggio helped Chadwell manage all the responsibilities of the young program such as training, recruiting, travel planning and acquiring equipment.

“When you enter a brand new program, you kind of get to do a little bit of everything,” Maggio said.

It was a job that helped give Maggio experience for her job at Texas A&M, and though she is now at her alma mater, she and the rest of the golf world have taken notice of Houston.

“You see other programs that started before and after UH did and they haven’t accomplished what UH has,” said Maggio.

On top of the experience, the Cougars had another huge asset in top-notch facilities.

Fiona Legesse-Sinha | The Cougar

Built in 2012 on the Golf Club of Houston, UH’s Dave Williams Golf Academy made UH the only university in Texas to have its team facilities right on a golf course used in the PGA Tour.

“It’s a game changer. That stuff when kids come on campus, that they can see and touch,” Chadwell said. “The girls that we were recruiting had no idea nor did they really care about national championships that were won over 30 years ago by the men.”

The golf club and academy have a total of 36 holes to practice on, four hitting bays, and a short game area where the team can drill its short range skills like wedges and chips just to name a few.

“Having our own space to store things, having locker rooms and food that I can snack on while I’m practicing … just little things made life a little bit easier,” said golf alumna Megan Thothong. “Little things like that really add up and you realize they make a big difference.”

Recruiting talent

Joining a completely new program was a tough sell for some athletes, but it provided motivation for others.

“It was just really exciting for me to know that whatever I did wasn’t just about myself or my teammates, but also the legacy that we’d be setting,” Thothong said.

Thothong joined the team in 2014 after being recruited as a top 50 golfer of the high school class of 2014.

In her four years as a Cougar, Thothong went to the NCAA Regionals twice and had 12 individual top 10 finishes.

“We grew quick and had a lot of good girls come. We became known in the golf word really fast,” said alumna Kelli Rollo. “Within our first two years of being a program, everyone knew that we came to play. We were hanging in there with teams that have been there for years.”

Rollo was one of UH’s first recruits and she was with the team in all five years of its existence, including her redshirted freshman year.

Another major recruit for the program was senior Leonie Harm, who is currently No. 18 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.

The allure of something new and Chadwell’s style of recruiting is what brought Harm all the way to Texas from her native Germany.

With talented golfers, experienced staff and a quality training facility, the Cougars were poised to succeed.

Starting strong

In their first season in 2013-14, the Cougars had just four active players and did not play in any team competitions, instead competing as individuals.

That didn’t stop UH from making history when sophomore Raegan Bremer became the first woman to win a golf tournament wearing the UH logo at the HBU Husky Invitational in April 2014.

The following season, with a full roster and more experience, the Cougars played in team competitions and claimed their first event win at the UNF Collegiate tournament.

After finishing the season with seven top five finishes and third place at the AAC tournament, the women’s team made it to its first NCAA Regional.

“We coaches can see the ability in them, but getting them to take themselves there is sometimes hard,” Chadwell said. “In our sport, the cliché is very true, it’s 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.”

The team finished 13th out of 18 teams and since only the top six advance, the Cougars’ season came to a close. A positive from the tournament was that UH had two freshman in the top half of the standings, Thothong and Emily Gilbreth.

Rinse and repeat

In the Cougars’ third year, the team did not have as many top five finishes, earning two tournament wins but no other top five placements. But the overall level of tournaments the team attended was higher.

But the year of hardship led the team to its greatest heights when it won the 2016 American Athletic Conference championship with a comfortable 10 stroke lead which led to an unforgettable moment.

“I remember coach said (before the tournament), ‘When we win this championship, we’re running into the ocean,’ and we were all like… okay… sure… you know,” Thothong said. “But it happened. After the win, coach said ‘Ok let’s go down.’ and we all said ‘What are we doing?’ ‘We’re running into the ocean as a family, as a team.’ That was a really great moment that I’ll always remember.”

The Cougars started the Baton Rouge Regional with a bang, placing fifth after day one, but were unable to replicate the performance in day two and fell to eighth.

Houston rallied on day three to take sixth before BYU birdied on its final hole to snag it away just one stroke ahead of UH in what Harm said was the toughest moment of her career.

Though the team’s season ended, Harm placed high enough to qualify for the NCAA Individual Championship and became the first woman to represent the Cougars at the tournament where she placed 81st out of 132 competitors after three days.

The 2016-17 season was a bit of a down year for the Cougars, as the squad failed to win any team events.

The Cougars improved in the final stretch of the season, but the team fell short at the AAC Championship and Columbus regional.

Houston rebounded in the 2017-18 season and had four top three finishes and four additional top six finishes in tournaments. Houston won the AAC title once again and it was one of the team’s sweetest wins.

“They say sometimes it’s actually harder to get a second win because now you know what it feels like. Sometimes it’s hard to stay in the moment and getting that win, I don’t think I’ve cried that much on a golf course before,” Thothong said.

Fiona Legesse-Sinha | The Cougar

History repeated itself as Houston was unable to advance out of regionals, but Harm won a seven hole playoff versus two other golfers to advance solo again.

Harm played better in her second appearance at the championship and finished tied for 45th at the tournament.

Though the team has done well, the Cougars are hungry to achieve more than regional tournament appearances.

Next woman up

More eyes than ever will be on the Cougars this season after winning their second title. But the Cougars path towards a third title will be without many of the team’s regulars from last season.

Four true freshman joined the team this summer including Dana Puyol and Hannah Screen, who play for the Spanish and English national teams, respectively, and Mario Jose Martinez, who has won three medals at the Mexican Olympics.

“We have tons of talent coming in. The girls have set the bar really high and now it’s time for these girls to set the bar a little higher,” said Chadwell.

Getting the newcomers settled before the first tournaments in September is Chadwell’s focus, and it’s a task that is all mental according to the two time AAC Coach of the Year.

“It’s funny, the size of the golf ball, the size of the hole… nothing changes except for the surroundings and the comfort level,” Chadwell said. “We’ve just gotta make them comfortable and have them understand its still the same game, you’re still playing against the same women you grew up with, you’re just wearing a different color now.”

Even though the team is almost half freshman, Chadwell’s sights are still on the AAC crown and higher.

Chadwell said he believes that the current crop of golfers has what it takes to make it to the NCAA Championships, where winning requires a tough mentality and being in perfect form at the right time.

“We must become more resistant to pressure, which we put on ourselves. Instead of intimidating us, it must make us rise to become the best golf version of ourselves. And most importantly, we need to believe that we have the capability of doing it,” Harm said.

Stepping back

While it is easy to get caught up in moving forward and training, looking back on experiences is also important for growth.

“Honestly, we really have to stop and think about what these girls have done because if not, you’re gonna keep chasing the rabbit around the track and never gonna catch it,” Chadwell said. Both Chadwell and Harm cited the conference titles as their favorite golf moments at UH.

For Rollo, her favorite moment came after over a year of not playing competitive golf.

Coming from small town Mont Belvieu, Rollo said she was in shock during his first year at UH and needed the extra time the redshirt year provided to adjust.

Even though she did not compete in tournaments, Rollo said that Chadwell and the team always made her feel like a part of the family.

“When I went to my first tournament and the entire team was so happy for me because they knew how hard I had worked. I was kind of a late bloomer on going to tournaments and it was this overwhelming feeling of just love and support,” said Rollo.

Thothong said the golf successes will always stick with her, but the little day-to-day interactions and get-togethers and how team worked through hardship left a big impact on her.

“It’s easy to feel the successes and feel how you made a good choice. For me, a really big part of how I grew as a person and a golfer were the down times. We found a bond in the struggle, trying to fight for each other and for ourselves,” Thothong said. “There were no moments where I thought I made the wrong choice. No regrets.”

An earlier version of this piece neglected to mention the contributions of former assistant coach Lucy Nunn. The Cougar apologizes for this oversight.

Nunn was with Houston for four years as an assistant coach and then an associate head coach after the departure of Maggio. Nunn brought experience, mentorship and connections to the team from her time playing and coaching at Arkansas and Kentucky. Nunn is now the head coach for the University of Southern Mississippi Women’s Golf team.

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