In just second year, women’s golf stands out as Division III powerhouse
Several souvenirs line the windowsill of Sean Curtis’ office on the fourth floor of the Athletic Complex. They seem to blend into the clutter of it all, but there is one plaque in particular that Curtis, head coach of the Washington University women’s golf team, doesn’t hesitate to show off.
“Still have it,” he says, bringing the trophy over to his desk. He speaks of the entire women’s golf program with a lot of pride, but a little extra seeps out looking at this trophy from the 2007 Maryville Spring Invitational.
His pride is more than understandable.
Consider this: This past September, the Washington University women’s golf team earned its first ever national ranking, in just its second full season as a varsity squad.
How does that happen? A seemingly endless supply of “commitment,” an amazing University, and some very special athletes—that’s how.
In the fall of 2006, Curtis and Athletic Director John Schael decided that it was time to start a women’s golf team. A mass e-mail to all female undergraduates on campus followed, and six students showed up at the ensuing meeting. Among the six were then-freshmen Claire Glasspiegel, Elizabeth Pfohl, Danielle Prague and Kris Zeschin.
“I’m truly proud to say that all four people are still with the program today,” Curtis said. “It’s pretty simple. Without them, we wouldn’t even be talking.”
A few months later, in the spring of 2007, the team began competing as an “emerging varsity sport” according to Curtis. Essentially, it was a club team with athletic department funding.
“We were off to a pretty good start,” Curtis said.
Talk about an understatement. It’s incredible. Four girls pulled off of campus brought home hardware their first time out, at Maryville.
Zeschin, now a senior and co-captain, also modestly called the win “unexpected.”
In the fall of 2007, Kate Pettinato and Caroline Larose arrived as the team’s first “recruits” on a team that was still “emerging varsity.” But as Pettinato, presently a junior, co-captain, put it, the choice was easy because “Wash. U. had a great reputation of taking athletics far. They were really committed to their athletic and academic program, so I thought it was a great balance for me.”
Sure enough, things really started to come together. The team finally acquired official apparel, practices became more frequent and conscientious and participation in tournaments increased.
“Every semester, we upped it,” Curtis said. “Everything we were doing felt more like a real team. You could look around and see what the others had and compare [and] you could kind of figure out where you stood.”
Finally, in the fall of 2008, Washington University women’s golf became an official varsity sport. The team won its very first tournament, at the McKendree Fall Invitational. Some struggles followed, but there was never a lack of competitiveness.
“Even though we were underdogs, so to speak, we were always doing well and improving, which was great to see,” Zeschin said.
Fast forward to this fall and the arrival of a pair of top Chicago-area high school golfers: freshmen Hannah Buck and Melanie Walsh. Both were standouts, with Buck finishing 10th in the state championship and Walsh taking 20th, only five strokes behind.
“We were just so fortunate to get Hannah and Melanie,” Curtis said. “Everything I had heard about them was great. I’ve never been surprised with the number of people interested in the golf program, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of the golfers.”
The diaper dandies’ impact was immediate. The Bears rattled off two victories this fall to earn their way into the polls and finished no worse than fifth in any of the five events they participated in.
On Sept. 29, the Wash. U. golf program was just a year and a month old as a varsity squad. On Sept. 30, they were the voted in the coaches’ poll as the ninth best in the country.
“It was thrilling,” Curtis said. “I think it also just felt good not to be the little guy on campus. There are so many good teams here, so it was a relief in itself just to stack up with them.”
The Bears would eventually move up to No. 5, but have gone through a rough patch this spring and are now No. 13. They’re sitting right in the middle of the bubble for an at-large bid to the national championship.
But still, how? This is a squad that went from literally being nothing (officially) to a big something in just a year’s time. The majority of players said they were drawn by the University’s academic prestige. But there’s way more to it. This team has something embedded deep within the character of each athlete that makes them a truly special group: unwavering commitment.
“When we started, all of the girls were really committed, and I think that commitment has only grown and it’s been critical to our success,” Pettinato said.
“Everyone has been 100 percent all of the time and that’s not something you get very often,” Zeschin added. “I’ve been so impressed by it.”
Therein lies the significance of that Maryville trophy. So much work went into that achievement and that victory, but rather than being a peak, it turned out only to be a catalyst for something bigger and better.
“It’s really been one of the most defining things I’ve done at Wash. U.,” Zeschin said. “It’s been amazing to compete, to make great friends, and to just be able to play this great game.”
Will that sentiment hold regardless of whether this squad can take its seniors to the promised land? Time will tell. Either way, all of these girls are champions in their own right.