ANGOLA, Ind. – Four years ago, Washington-St. Louis women’s didn’t garner an invitation to the NCAA Championships.
They didn’t win one tournament that season. They didn’t pump fists celebrating long birdie putts or grimace as errant drives sailed into the brush. They didn’t strike one ball.
They didn’t exist.
But nearly four years after the team first dug spikes into soil in the program’s inaugural tournament — the sparsely-attended 2008 McKendree Fall Invitational — the Bears can’t be ignored, even by Division III stalwart Methodist. Though the program is still in its infancy, Washington-St. Louis has hurriedly transformed from plucky upstart to legitimate contender for the national championship trophy that has been in Methodist’s clutches for 14 consecutive years.
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The young Bears aren’t content with silver in this year’s championship, which is being contested at Zollner Golf Course in Angola, Ind.
“My sophomore year, we were just happy to be here,” said Katie Homa, one of two seniors who have been with the Bears since the program’s inception. “This year we feel we’re expected to do well, not just that we could.”
But the burden of expectation weighed heavily on the young team during Tuesday’s first round. After the event’s opening day, the Bears find themselves in 13th place, 19 strokes behind tournament leader Williams and 16 behind favorite Methodist.
“There were definitely nerves today,” junior Hannah Buck said. “It was the first year where there have really been any expectations of us. I think maybe they got to us a little bit … I’m glad the first round is over.”
A poor first round doesn’t diminish the budding program’s myriad accomplishments this season. The Bears boasted three of Division III’s 10 lowest-scoring golfers, including two of the three best. Freshman Olivia Lugar led the nation in scoring, shooting an average 75.15-per-round — a mere 3.35 strokes over par. Buck was third nationally, notching an average round of 76.85. Sophomore Andrea Hibbert finished tenth, averaging 79.15 strokes through the 20 competitive rounds she played in 2011-12.
Methodist, by comparison, has three of the nation’s 11 best scorers through the season, none finishing better than sixth overall.
But the Bears weren’t so successful early on. Homa, who joined the team when head coach Sean Curtis called her in 2008 simply because she’d indicated golf was an interest on her application to the school, remembers when the Bears shot more than 64-over par-per-tournament — only 38th in the nation — during her freshman year. That figure has dipped significantly in each subsequent season. She credits the team’s turnaround with the slew of Division I-caliber recruits drawn by the university’s competitive academic environment.
Buck has been the backbone of the team’s rapid rise from obscurity. As a freshman in the 2009-10 season, she earned second-team All-American honors, leading the team to a 55.65-over-par scoring average and the program’s first national championship appearance. Last year, she garnered first-team All-American honors and the Bears’ scoring average plummeted to 41.55 over par. They finished eighth in their second straight bid for the national title.
Division I Dartmouth courted Buck, but she was drawn to Washington-St. Louis for the school’s academic reputation and because she knew she’d have the chance to keep a young program alive, eventually helping it thrive.
“Knowing it was only the second year, I thought it’d be nice to be part of building something,” Buck said. “I knew I’d be able to go in and contribute right away. I’ve gotten to watch it grow.”
This season, the Bears averaged a mere 23.55 strokes over par, the lowest in Division III. They played in 10 tournaments this season, winning all but four. Their worst finish was sixth-place in April’s Illinois Wesleyan Spring Fling tournament. And they entered this week’s championship ranked second in the nation in the National Golf Coaches Association Division III poll, even garnering a first-place vote.
“That’s when we knew, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re contenders and we can definitely do this,’” Homa said.
The addition of freshman standout Lugar pushed an already talented roster to an elite level. Curtis credits the success of previous years’ recruiting classes for his ability to lure in increasingly talented players in spite of the program’s lack of history.
“It’s a bit of a domino effect,” he said. “Hopefully it just keeps going.”
Lugar was the one member of the team who didn’t seem rattled on the first day of this year’s championship. She shot two over par, good enough for a tie for fourth in the individual tournament standings. Rather than try to make a Division I roster, Lugar too was drawn by the chance to make a significant impact on a team on the verge of success.
“I knew we had the potential,” she said. “I knew they could compete, and I knew if I was here I could get them maybe that much further.”
In 2006, long before Curtis was able to lure top talents like Buck and Lugar, he held a meeting on campus to gauge interest in the sport. Only six women showed up. Four of them would go on to play in the varsity team’s inaugural season. But that meager meeting laid the groundwork upon which he’s built one of Division III’s top programs in only four seasons. Even Curtis admits his team has improved far more rapidly than he anticipated.
That improvement wasn’t evident on Tuesday, however. After the disappointing round, the coach was deflated, but remained confident that his team would make a strong push through the remainder of the week.
“There’s nowhere to go but up,” he said.
The same held true four years ago.