Coach Slone's squad will duel Illinois State in the Illinois Challenge this Sunday in Venice, Fla.
Jan. 31, 2014
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Though Champaign is in the heart of winter, the Illinois women's golf team will heat things up this Sunday in Venice, Fla. when they make their spring season debut. After a few months off since their last tournament in late October, the Fighting Illini are eager to build upon the momentum gained from a strong fall season. Sunday, they will battle Illinois State in the Illinois Challenge exhibition.
Last fall, the Illini literally and figuratively came out swinging, finishing in the top-three in four its five tournaments. In fact, the Illini took home the Diane Thomason Invitational trophy, the program's first tournament title since Feb. 2012. Furthermore, the golf world took notice, as the Orange and Blue climbed 84 spots in the Golfstat rankings to No. 38.
In addition, Illinois not only inserted itself into several spots in the record book after a successful fall, but also positioned itself to potentially break an all-time program record. The squad posted three 54-hole tournament scores in the all-time top-10 list, with the highest being an 886 (+22) set at the Ptarmigan Ram Classic. The Illini also recorded a round of 288 (E), which was the fifth lowest in school history. More impressively, at the conclusion of 2013, the Illini scoring average was 297.67; the all-time leading scoring average in program history is 303.86, set back in the 2011-12 season.
"We expect every team member to put forth 100% effort toward her continued growth and development," Illinois head coach Renee Slone stated on her expectations for the spring. "This includes all areas of the game (technical, mental, emotional, physical, well-being). We expect the team to be fully committed to our team standards and core values and remain focused on the process. We will continue to manage the things that are within our control, be each other’s greatest supporters and challenge each other to be the very best we can be every single day. The team will be well prepared, confident in their abilities and continue to build true mental toughness. If we embrace these things fully, the results will take care of themselves."
Stephanie Miller gave an instant jolt to the squad after a strong debut. The freshman won the Diane Thomason Invitational individual competition by 10 strokes as her three under par total ranked as the sixth lowest 54-hole tournament score in Illinois history. As a result, Miller was the first Illinois freshman since 1992 to win a tournament outright.
Miller also received national and conference honors, being awarded Golfweek's College Player of the Week and Big Ten Golfer of the Week. Furthermore, the Elgin, Ill. native produced a team best four rounds under par. Last but not least, Miller's fall scoring average of 73.40 puts her on pace for the all-time single season stroke average lead, currently held by Coach Slone and her 74.33 mark set back in the 1992-93 season.
When asked how Miller can keep progressing to be the best in the conference, Slone said, "Continued experience in learning to manage her game and emotions especially when in challenging situations."
Miller is not the only one on track to potentially take down Coach Slone's record, as senior Ember Schuldt currently sits with a 73.73 stroke average. Schuldt finished the fall season strong, leading the Illini in the final two tournaments. The Sterling, Ill. native also delivered her best tournament score (215, +2) and best finish (2nd) thus far in her career, both at the Hoosier Invitational.
While Schudlt might be battling Miller on the single season records, the senior will also have a chance to make history of her own in the career records section. Schudlt is in second place with a 76.12 on the career stroke average leader board, with Coach Slone holding the top spot once more with a 75.53.
"Ember has always been a phenomenal leader by example. In the fall, she really took on more of a vocal leadership role and it has made a tremendous impact on the team. She inspires others and unites the team on its mission in creative ways."
Redshirt-junior Sam Postillion started the fall with a great first tournament, leading the squad with a 216, even par. Postillion then averaged just over a 227 per tournament over the next four events.
When asked about the difference, Slone responded, "Solid ball striking coupled with great putting that led to more birdies and very few mistakes. The next week in Minnesota the ball striking was great again but the putting was not there. Her average putts per round went from 29.33 at Ptarmigan to 34.33…that is a 5 shot per round difference. At Ptarmigan she shot 216 and at Minnesota 231….there’s your 15 shots right on the number."
Emily Joers was yet another freshman who made an immediate impact and added to the upswing of the program. Joers consistently came in as Illinois' fourth finisher in tournaments, averaging 76.13 strokes per round. In addition, Joers had four rounds of 73 and an even par round of 72 in the fall, but at the same time, scored a few rounds at the 80 mark.
When asked about gaining consistency toward her lower 70's scores, Slone responded, "Emily had a history of starting well and then struggling in the final rounds due to her own expectations. She is learning to let go of expectations and approach each round as a blank slate with a fresh start. Each round is viewed as a new opportunity and previous solid rounds are used as sources of confidence and positive energy."
Erin Ahern, Michelle Mayer and Jackie Calamaro all had a crack at the No. 5 spot for the Fighting Illini in the fall, with Ahern and Calamaro both receiving two opportunities. Ahern had the lowest average of the trio with a 79.89, followed by Calamaro's 80.25 and Mayer's 85.00.
"Time will tell," said Slone on what she expects to develop of the five slot. "Each and every tournament we take the line-up that provides us the greatest opportunity of being successful."
The Orange and Blue thus enter the spring season hungrier and more confident than ever. Coach Slone has stressed to the squad on not becoming too focused on results and to stay committed to the process.
"Keep the focus on the things we control and ourselves," Slone explained. "Use tools to build true mental toughness and constant reminders of our commitments."
Illinois will contend for its sixth consecutive victory over Illinois State in the sixth-annual Illinois Challenge on Sunday. The annual event will be played at the par-72, 5,094-yard Venice Golf & Country Club. At the meet, the two contending teams will compete in four ball matches before golfers from each school go head-to-head in the individual matches in the all-day event.
Three weeks after the Illinois Challenge, the Illini will begin its spring tournament season on Feb. 23 at the Westbrook Invite in Peoria, Ariz. hosted by the University of Wisconsin.