Connelly enjoying ride at NCAAs

UCF golfer Stephanie Connelly rides her Harley-Davidson during the 2009 NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md.

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UCF golfer Stephanie Connelly and her dad, Mike, on their Harley-Davidson during the 2009 NCAA Women's Golf Championships at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md.

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Stephanie Connelly is full-speed ahead all the time.

In her final semester this spring at Central Florida, she got a 3.5 GPA while taking 21 hours – nine more than the NCAA requires – in order to graduate on time. On the golf course, she walks briskly from tee to green, often leaving her playing partners behind. And off the golf course, well, she leaves her dad in the dust, too.

Mike Connelly bought his daughter a Harley Sportster 1200 for a college graduation present. After Friday’s final round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Championship, where Connelly is playing as an individual, the duo plans to hit the road, father and daughter on their Harleys, heading down Highway 301 across the Chesapeake Bay.

“We’re the fun family,” says Mike, a no-nonsense guy with a 5 o’clock shadow who has missed just one of his daughter’s college tournaments in four years. “She ain’t no biker chick, though.”

Through three rounds at the national championship, Connelly’s been all golfer. Her 5-over 221 has her tied for fifth individually, ahead of names like Blumenherst, Munoz, Salas and Ciganda. Not bad for someone ranked No. 118 in the nation.

It’s been quite a week for the local girl who grew up in Pasadena, Md., 40 minutes from Caves Valley and had this week in the back of her mind since freshman year. She’s been featured in the Baltimore Sun and been on local morning radio shows.

A slew of family and friends have been out to watch her play. Connelly’s mother, Alicia, who manages an oncology practice 20 minutes from Caves Valley, joked that she dyed her hair blonde in order to hide all the gray hair from the nerves of the week. Mike invited some work friends from his job at a power plant. And then there was the dinner Monday night at an aunt’s restaurant near Baltimore for 25 of their closest friends.

“It’s been pretty cool,” Connelly said.

Especially since two months ago, Connelly didn’t even think she’d be here.

Despite leading the Knights in scoring this season, Connelly placed T-50 or worse in four events. This spring, the Knights plummeted down the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, beating just one team in their final three regular season events. Postseason possibilities were looking bleak until a second-place finish at the Conference USA Championship earned UCF the No. 18 seed in the East Regional.

With Connelly’s chance of playing at the national championship still alive, she seized the moment, closing 69-68 to finish second at the East Regional and earn a spot at Caves Valley.

“I’ve known throughout my career that I’m an impact player,” Connelly said. “I think I do better in high-pressure situations.”

Connelly’s success didn’t surprise her high school golf coach, Brandt Schanberger, who has been rooting her on this week. Schanberger, who retired in 2004 after 32 years at Northeast Senior High in Pasadena where he also coached boy’s basketball and soccer, remembers Connelly’s work ethic as junior.

“She was the toughest kid mentally I’ve ever coached – of any sport,” Schanberger said. “She’d rather practice than play at the golf course. Mike and I would play 18 holes and she’d be over at the short-game area. We’d finish the round and shout over to her, ‘Hey, you want to get lunch?’ She’d say no and practice for another hour.”

That determination was on display Thursday. Connelly shook off a double bogey at No. 14 and a bogey on 16 with a laser approach to the par-5 17th that set up her third birdie of the day. On No. 18, she got up and down from a greenside bunker to save par.

Connelly knew her swing got a little loose coming in and shed a few tears after the round while getting a hug from mom and dad. UCF coach Emilee Klein offered a pat on the back, as did Schanberger and the rest of the Pasadena posse.

“I’m just a little tired,” Connelly said. “It’s been a busy week.”

Five hours after her round, Connelly was back at Caves Valley. With the sun setting behind the bluffs that surround the course, Connelly and her father hopped on their Harleys and rode back, soaking up a magnificent Maryland evening together. In two weeks, she’ll start her professional career on the Duramed Futures Tour, and Mike and Alicia plan to visit her on the road.

“We’ve always been pretty adventurous,” Connelly said.

Looks like the adventure is only starting.

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