April 12, 2010

By Michael Rosengart
Special to NCAA.com

MaryJo McCloskey arrived at George Fox University in the spring of 2006 charged with starting a women's golf team. With the support of the school administration, the local community and former PGA Tour competitor Brian Henninger, there was only one thing missing-golfers.

Although the initial plan was to wait a year to allow some recruits to come in, that plan was scratched and the "team" of a freshman, a transfer sophomore, and two varsity basketball players began competition the next fall.

"All of them had played golf before, but they were definitely beginners," said McCloskey. "And I sort of thought, 'I want to make this a quality program. I don't want to start with not beginning able to break 100.'"

That same fall, Washington University in St. Louis Athletic Director John Schael tapped Sean Curtis, the school's director of club and intramural sports, to start a women's golf team. A blast email went out to all the female undergraduates on the campus of approximately 6,000 and six showed up to the very first meeting where.

"I really had no expectations," said senior co-captain Kris Zeschin, a freshman at the time. "I didn't know if it was actually going to go anywhere."

Fast forward to the spring of 2010; both Washington-St. Louis and George Fox have not only made it into the top 10 in the coaches' poll, but have truly established themselves as elites in Division III. Wash. U. has placed no worse than fifth in any event this fall, including two wins, to peak at No. 5, while the Bruins have won seven of eight events this season and currently sit tied for 10th in the rankings.

But for all their similarities, their approaches to their successes couldn't be more different. While Wash. U. has taken its game to the next level thanks to the arrival of two Chicago-area freshman phenoms, Hannah Buck and Melanie Walsh, GFU has relied on a more all-around approach. Although juniors Mandy Cameron and Brianna Nap typically lead the way for George Fox, six different players have posted counting numbers this spring.

Yet, without even knowing of their similar stories, their ascendancies to the top of Div. III women's golf share a number of striking similarities based on strong roots, commitment, improvement and a focus on the team.

Wash. U's journey started as an "emerging varsity sport" - official-speak for a club team with athletic department funding. But they started with a bang. The Bears' first tournament came in the spring of 2007, when they took a short trip to the Maryville Invitational and came back with a trophy. In a standard D-III field, the Bear cubs, if you will, brought home the hardware.

"It was pretty unexpected," said Zeschin.

But something far more important was established at Maryville than just a winning culture. The win reflected, and set further into motion an unwavering commitment to making the program into something special. You can hear the bit of extra pride that seeps out of coach Curtis when he talks about that first year.

"The four seniors on the team today were all at that very first meeting, and they've stuck with the program ever since" Curtis said. "It's pretty simple. Without them, we wouldn't be talking."

What's even more remarkable though is the way each incoming class has realized that tradition. Although really, can there even be "tradition" in a third-year program?

"When we started, all of the girls were really committed and I think that commitment has only grown," said junior co-captain Kate Pettinato, the team's first 'recruit.' "It's been critical to our success."

"I feel like we got the easy end of it because we got here and the seniors, especially Kate and Kris, have worked so hard with the program and done all of the grunt work," Walsh said.

Meanwhile at George Fox, coach McCloskey was finding out she had struck a different sort of gold where she least expected it.

"They can putt," she said about her two basketball players. "They've got the whole routine thing down from the free throws - and they can putt. I'm not kidding."

But in a sport that Bobby Jones once famously said is "played on the six inch course between your ears," McCloskey found just the psychological keystone she needed to create something great.

"Having girls that were older and could step into a leadership role might have been the best thing that could ever happen to this program," she said. "They brought a great foundation with their work ethic and outlook on the game. To this day Robin [one of the basketball players] says to me, 'I was such a terrible golfer. I can't believe you let me play,' and I tell her that she doesn't even have an idea of how she added to that first year."

And like Wash. U, that foundation led to something that endures today.

The story of the team's first practices at a driving range still under development tells the story. In the wretched weather of the Pacific Northwest, the Bruins would go out into the dirt and tall grass and hit balls, "Tin Cup-style," as McCloskey put it. Talk about humble beginnings.

"These girls always want to go further," said McCloskey of her current team. "They just have that drive and I think it's been here from the start and trickled down ever since."

Back in St. Louis, the commitment was paying off. Although things had started well, there had been some struggles and the team was still struggling to establish an identity the awkward position of being an "emerging varsity program." But there was consistent progress.

"Every semester we upped it," said Curtis. "Everything we were doing felt more like a real team. We got some apparel so we looked like a team, and we practiced and every semester we just kind of added to what we were doing. You could look around and see what the others had and compare you could kind of figure out where you stood."

The Bears continued to improve in every facet of program-building - including, most importantly, bringing in better and better incoming talent.

Pettinato came to the Bears as the first female golfer to qualify for a state sectional from a Chicago public high school. The icing on the cake came in the form of the team's most recent arrivals, Buck and Walsh.

The duo averaged a 77 and an 80 respectively this past fall, helping bring a huge drop in the team average. But not only have the team's cumulative scores dropped, the older upperclassmen have shaved strokes off their game as well. Pettinato's spring average was an 85, down from 86, sophomore Katie Homa took two strokes off her average, and Zeschin's average number went from an 86 to an 82.

The emphasis on development rang even truer at George Fox. McCloskey spoke about how a friend once remarked how she had the opportunity "to build whatever I want" and claims that from then on George Fox golf was going to be not just about recruiting, but development as well.

Being able to practice at one of Oregon's toughest public courses has been instrumental to that to be certain, but that the players buy into the system is what has made the biggest difference.

"I believe that the key to our team's success has been our eagerness improve," said Cameron, a two-time medalist this year and Division III Academic All-American.

Freshman Kelsey Morrison, who came to the Pacific Northwest all the way from southern California, said she has also seen improvement in her short game in not even a full year. After averaging an 86 in the fall, her average number has been 82 this spring.

Finally, for both sides, so much of it is about team.

Said Wash. U. freshman Hannah Buck, "We're all really good friends. I really can't imagine it being any other way." She added that she and fellow freshman Melanie Walsh, also her roommate, "felt so welcome and the older girls have been so good to us. It really meant a lot to us."

At George Fox, the camaraderie is evident just about everywhere, but it comes out most in a story from last year's President's Cup. On the way to a tournament in Monterey, CA, the team had made a pit stop in San Francisco to take in the biannual tournament this fall at Harding Park. A short while before heading out to the course, the team decided they'd all wear their matching uniforms with pink breast cancer awareness hats.

As they watched together by one of the holes Phil Mickelson had just finished, he recognized them from the night before when they had been hanging out in the lobby of the player's hotel. He tossed them a ball and the girls made it onto the Golf Channel later that night.

"The girls were going nuts," said McCloskey. "It was just such a fun experience."

It hasn't always been fun. Far from it. But as the season veers into the final stretch, the Bears and the Bruins stand on the precipice of an accomplishment that seemed but a dream a few years ago: qualifying for their first national championship. And as Zeschin looks back on the past four years - years of work, of sacrifice and a commitment to a dream that began as an experiment - she smiles.

"It's never really been a burden," she said. "How could it be?"