With past firmly behind them, Clemson women advance to first NCAA Championship

Twitter/@ClemsonWGolf

With past firmly behind them, Clemson women advance to first NCAA Championship

Women

With past firmly behind them, Clemson women advance to first NCAA Championship

Clemson coach Kelley Hester insisted on one thing from her players at the start of the fall season: Don’t talk about the past.

“We’re just going to talk about future,” she told them.

Incredibly, they bought in.

The immediate future for Clemson is Rich Harvest Farms, where the Tigers will make their team debut at the NCAA Championship May 19-24 in Sugar Grove, Ill. Clemson placed fifth at the NCAA regional in Athens, Ga, where the top six teams advanced. Alabama won the tournament by 14 strokes.

This marks the fourth different program Hester has led to the finals, joining Arkansas, Georgia and Furman.

To say Hester entered a dramatic situation at Clemson last summer would be an understatement. Head coach J.T. Horton, the man who was hired to start the program in August 2011, was fired on July 1, 2016 amid team turmoil. Horton was investigated for what some team members described as a “hostile” environment. The school did not find that he had violated any policies, but administrators still decided to move in another direction.

Horton felt blindsided; the team stood divided.

The question when Hester took over wasn’t about talent. The question was: Could the girls even be in the same room together?

“Like the Etch A Sketch, when you shake it up and it’s blank again,” said Hester last summer. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Hester said nothing magical took place in the past 10 months. She and longtime friend, current assistant coach Heather Bowie Young, simply modeled what it looked like to care.

“I would say we started slow,” said Hester, “and tried to earn their trust and show them unconditional love and support so that they could show that to one another.”

Two freshmen made an immediate impact in the lineup. Ana Paula Valdes, whom Hester calls a world-class player, was joined by Kennedy Swann in January. Swann graduated from high school early in Austin, Texas.

They were joined by sophomore Alice Hewson, junior-college transfer Sydney Legacy and Marisa Messana, who posted her first low round for the team on the final day at regionals.

Clemson’s comeback story in Athens (they opened T-11 after an abysmal 304), wasn’t only about the Tigers’ past. It marked a noteworthy homecoming for Hester, too.

Hester, a UGA graduate, landed her dream job 10 years ago in Athens after Todd McCorkle resigned amid allegations from his players regarding inappropriate comments. So many players left Georgia over the controversy that Hester had to hold campus tryouts that first year.

After five seasons at Georgia, Hester was let go.

It was a devastating blow to the coach who had made a career of building programs.

She picked herself up and moved to Furman to try and resurrect another flailing program with the support of prominent alumni such as Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Dottie Pepper and then-Nike executive Cindy Davis.

In her fourth year in Greenville, S.C., Hester led the Paladins to the NCAA Championship for the first time since 2008.

This week’s regional marked her first return to Athens since she was let go.

“It was time to come back,” said Hester, who called it one of the most emotionally-charged weeks of her coaching career.

When the Tigers were done making history, Hester took a look at live scoring to see that Furman was enjoying a strong day in Lubbock, Texas. The Paladins advanced to the finals for a second consecutive year. She was undoubtedly proud.

Georgia, the host school in Athens, did not advance to NCAAS placing seventh, three strokes behind North Carolina. The ever-classy Hester made no mention of this.

And to show that everyone has moved on, Lauren Stephenson stopped by after it was over to give Hester a hug. Stephenson, who advanced to the NCAA Championship as an individual last spring for Clemson, transferred to Alabama because of the coaching situation. She’d made up her mind to leave well before Hester was hired.

Stephenson tied for second at the regional with teammate Cheyenne Knight, five strokes behind Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho. In keeping with overcoming theme in Athens, Kupcho’s once-promising Wake Forest team took a nosedive when a pair of marquee freshmen – Mathilda Cappeliez and Sierra Brooks – left in the spring. (This after Kupcho, who was ranked No. 1, fell off a golf cart at a tournament and suffered a concussion.) The Demon Deacons placed 15th.

Hester knows better than to ever take good days like this for granted.

“I feel like maybe I can show some other people who have been knocked down that you can pick yourself back up,” she said.

“Maybe even come back stronger.”

Latest

More Golfweek
Home