At 9 a.m. on Feb. 7, head coach Chris Saltmarsh learned in a meeting with Florida Tech athletic director Bill Jurgens that the women’s golf program would be cut after the spring season.
At 12:30 p.m., they gathered the team in between classes so that Jurgens could deliver the news before a press release went out that afternoon.
“I remember him saying ‘Do you have any questions?’ ” senior Lucy Eaton recalled. “We all just had our mouths open in shock. No one could say anything. We were just all heartbroken.”
Later that day on the team’s group chat, Eaton wrote: “New target acquired. Let’s go win nationals.”
At the time, no one actually believed that might happen. But Hollywood scripts are made from moments like these.
The Florida Tech team channeled their anger and frustration into the kind of storybook run that transcends sports, winning the program’s first NCAA Division II title on its last day of existence.
“I have broken down a number of times without anybody knowing it,” said Saltmarsh. “You can hide a lot behind glasses.”
Florida Tech actually cut three varsity programs in all, with men’s and women’s tennis facing the same fate. Among the factors Jurgens listed in determining which sports were cut was the “potential to be competitive.”
Rollins coach Julie Garner said she would’ve had T-shirts printed up with that phrase.
Nothing about the fall pointed toward anything special for Florida Tech. They were ranked 19th coming into the 2018-19 season and then Saltmarsh benched one of his top players for lack of effort and told senior Paolo Ortiz to take some time off to work through personal issues.
The Panthers didn’t even look like a top-30 team when spring rolled around.
Then the announcement hit.
Saltmarsh told his players he’d do whatever he could to help them land on their feet. He didn’t change their daily routine. Everyone still showed up for 6 a.m. workouts, committed to get better.
Saltmarsh added an extra tournament to the schedule to give younger players another opportunity to showcase their skills to other programs. Eaton, the No. 5 player, won her first college tournament at the Battle at Hilton Head and led the Panthers to their first team title since 2016.
The team’s No. 4 player, Lauren Watson, finished second.
“I think that’s when it hit the rest of them that there’s something we can do here,” said Saltmarsh.
Florida Tech won twice more in the spring and finished second at Barry’s event.
“It was all about trying to keep winning, keep making history,” Saltmarsh said.
After a disappointing sixth-place finish at the Sunshine State Conference Championship, Saltmarsh felt the team had grown a little complacent thinking it was going to be easy.
There’s nothing easy about advancing out of the South Region in Division II, a field that’s annually stacked with highly-ranked teams.
“You come out of the South Region battered and bloodied because it’s just so deep,” said Garner, who has led the Tars to six national titles.
Florida Tech finished fourth at regionals to advance to the NCAA Championship for the first time in school history.
This year’s event was held on PGA National’s Champion Course, site of the Honda Classic, in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. The Panthers won the 54-hole stroke play competition to advance to match play as the No. 1 seed. Division II uses a “Medal Match” format at NCAAs, which is scored by the cumulative number of strokes by rather than the number of holes won.
Florida Tech defeated Findlay in the quarterfinals, 3-2, and then dispatched Southwestern Oklahoma State in the semifinals by the same score.
Eaton and Watson were rooming together in Palm Beach and said they couldn’t eat or sleep the night before the championship match because nerves were running so high.
Eaton went off in the lead match and found herself 6 down through 12 holes. Volunteer assistant coach Mitch Greenberg approached Eaton in one of the fairways and convinced her to get into a tree pose to work on some deep breathing.
Eaton resisted at first, thinking she might look a bit silly going yoga mid-round, but committed to it and calmed down.
The Englishwoman, who broke her elbow last fall after jumping on the hood of a car, rallied like there was no tomorrow to put the first point on the board for the Panthers.
Saltmarsh said he always knew she had it in her.
Ortiz put up the second point and sophomore Megan Dennis hung on to clinch it on the 18th.
Players on the men’s team call Saltmarsh the “Stone-face Killer” because they can never tell what he’s thinking or feeling. He likes it that way.
He couldn’t stop the tears on Saturday though.
“Sheer joy,” he said.
University of Indianapolis coach Brent Nicoson wanted his team to win, of course, the Greyhounds have won two of the last four NCAA DII titles, but found it easy to root for Florida Tech. Nicoson said he and his team could imagine themselves in that situation and how they might react.
“They took the high road and did the right thing and proved not only to their school, but to the nation what they’re made of,” Nicoson said.
This is Saltmarsh’s ninth season as head men’s and women’s golf course at Florida Tech. Three years ago, he found out that they were cutting the scholarships for both programs, though current players were grandfathered in. As of now, he plans to remain at Florida Tech coaching a men’s team that won the conference title last year.
“We’re going to try and remain competitive even without scholarships,” he said. “I firmly believe it’s in the realm of possibility. It will take some work. I’m not a quitter. I don’t know how to lose to be honest.”
Something like this has happened once before in college golf. Minnesota won the men’s NCAA Division I title in 2002 just months after learning the program might be eliminated. Supporters rallied and managed to reverse the decision.
That won’t be happening at Florida Tech.
“I think the ship has sailed,” Saltmarsh said.
Dennis, a sophomore, will head to Pepperdine in the fall and classmate Beijer signed with Missouri. Watson has only one year left of eligibility and plans to compete on the men’s team at Florida Tech next year.
The team gathered on Wednesday evening at The Woods in Jupiter for a Last Supper of sorts.
“It seemed fitting,” said Saltmarsh of dining at Tiger’s place.
It also happened to be Eaton’s 23rd birthday. She ordered a big burger to celebrate and her smile radiated through the phone.
“I wouldn’t want to be here with anybody else,” she said.
And then the curtain fell.