New coaches, new hope at Florida schools

University of Florida head coach Jan Dowling, right, and Mia Piccio during the Hooters Collegiate Match Play Championship.

University of Florida head coach Jan Dowling, right, and Mia Piccio during the Hooters Collegiate Match Play Championship.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jan Dowling almost missed the awards ceremony of her first event as head coach (my fault, not hers). She ran from doing an interview in her cart to the scoreboard area of LPGA International, where the Florida Gators were being recognized for winning the stroke-play portion of the Hooters Collegiate Match Play Championship.

The Gators fell to LSU in the semifinals of the event, but the stroke-play portion matters just as much because, unlike in men’s college golf, the NCAA Women’s Division I Championship still is a medal-play event.

“Can’t really ask for a better start,” Dowling said.

Two of Florida’s strongest golf programs were infused with fresh energy over the summer. Dowling replaced longtime coach Jill Briles-Hinton in Gainesville, and Courtney Trimble took Emilee Klein’s place at the University of Central Florida. Both of these former college standouts graduated in 2002 and were promoted from assistant-coaching positions at successful programs.

While Dowling’s team finished first in Daytona, UCF rode the caboose in the 16-team field.

photo

Florida coach Jan Dowling (left)

It didn’t go unnoticed, however, that three players in Dowling’s starting lineup had at one point either committed to UCF or been on its roster. With the late additions of Amelia Lewis and Isabelle Lendl, Dowling walked into a fairly good position in Gatorland. However, Trimble (formerly Courtney Swaim when she played at Auburn) will need time to build a truly competitive program.

Next to Dowling’s bio on the Gators Web site, there’s a Florida slogan that reads: “It’s performance that counts.”

How fitting. The fact that the Gators didn’t advance to the NCAA Championship last May gave Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley cause to take action. Briles-Hinton’s team didn’t perform, plain and simple. She was replaced (and recently hired at Richmond).

Dowling, a product of Kent State, came to Florida from Duke, where she filled in as head coach several times last fall when Dan Brooks suffered inner-ear problems.

Dowling’s Gator lineup has plenty of talent, but with the two Lendl sisters – Marika and Isabelle – suffering slumps early in their careers, and junior Jessica Yadloczky failing to make the lineup, it’s difficult to tell which of their games will show up any given week. There’s definite potential, though.

The 12-player, senior-less squad went through four rounds of qualifying to determine who traveled. Dowling said Yadloczky’s poor play at qualifying might be a blessing in disguise, since she needed the break after a rough summer.

Isabelle Lendl planned to turn professional out of high school but changed her mind when her game went south. She followed big sister Marika to Florida and said her ballstriking is becoming more consistent.

And classes?

Well, she has only been kicked out of one so far. Lendl, daughter of famous Czech tennis star Ivan, signed up for a Czech class to sharpen her skills. When she understood the teacher’s jokes and answered questions in Czech that should’ve been too difficult, the professor forced her to take a placement test. She’s now taking Polish instead.

“She kicked me out,” Lendl said with a laugh.

Amelia Lewis also thought she’d turn professional last January after finishing seven strokes behind winner Candace Schepperle at the Harder Hall Invitational. (Not exactly a good litmus test.) Lewis had committed to UCF, but then thought she might skip college altogether.

Lewis changed her mind again, however, and when Briles-Hinton offered her a 50 percent scholarship, she took it.

“It definitely paid off to wait,” said Lewis, who won the North and South Amateur this summer. The Jacksonville, Fla., native was especially pleased given that she was forced to sit out for several months after having a tumor removed from her ring finger.

Lewis’ parents are doing their part to motivate their daughter at school. She has to earn the right to move pieces of furniture and entertainment items from Jacksonville to her Gainesville dorm. She already has played well enough to get her TV. Now she must meet her mom’s new goal (always golf-related) to secure her bike. The Florida campus isn’t small.

It will be interesting to see where Dowling and Swaim take these Florida teams in the coming years. They’re young, energetic and recruiting from a state that’s golf-crazy 365 days a year.

It should be a recipe for success.

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