Golfweek.com – Allen Etzler
ORLANDO, Fla. — When Central Florida head coach Emily Marron attended a college golf camp that featured Stacy Lewis recently, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the tournament that Marron’s program hosts each year: the UCF Challenge.
Lewis mentioned that Marron shouldn’t expect Houston to play in that tournament. Lewis’ fiancé, Cougars head coach Gerrod Chadwell, wasn’t sure if playing in a tournament that early in the year would be good for his team.
“He’ll probably play in it, and he’ll probably win the thing,” Marron recalled saying.
It’s as if she were holding a crystal ball.
Houston did play in the UCF Challenge, and on a cold and windy final day Tuesday, the Cougars gutted out a third straight 7-over 295 to finish at 21 over, edging Tulane by one stroke and capturing the title at Eagle Creek Golf Club.
East Carolina’s Frida Gustafsson Spang took home the individual title, shooting 3 under and finishing as the only player in the field to break par for the tournament. Missouri’s Michelle Butler shot even par to finish runner-up. Houston senior Raegan Bremer shot 1 under Tuesday to jump 16 spots into T-6 to lead the Cougars.
“We’re definitely going to come back next year now,” Chadwell said.
But the joking didn’t last long. Chadwell quickly became emotional after his team’s second victory in only its second season.
“This one is for (assistant coach) Lucy (Nunn),” Chadwell said. “She has pushed the girls, and pushed the girls and helped me through this change of seasons in my life. So, we’re going to let Lucy carry the trophy.”
The “change of seasons” to which Chadwell referred is his engagement to Lewis, which happened in November. Chadwell said he feels like the adjustment has caused him to be away from his team more than he is accustomed. But during his occasional absences, Nunn has stepped in and grown into what Chadwell called “one of the best assistants in women’s golf.”
Nunn, who came to Houston after an assistant coaching job at Kentucky didn’t work out, considered giving up coaching before Chadwell offered to bring her on board. He brought her in for an interview and tried to sell her on the job.
“She had a great interview,” Chadwell said. “The job was hers if she wanted it.”
Chadwell gave it some time before calling Nunn to see what she thought. She had already put a deposit down on an apartment in Houston.
“It’s really cool what’s happening with (Lewis and Chadwell),” said Nunn, a college teammate of Lewis at Arkansas. “Seeing them mesh has been great. But, for him to have that trust in me when he has to miss something has been the biggest thing in making me a better coach. He’s given me a lot that leadership role. The biggest thing was just getting comfortable as a coach and my personality and with this group I have just felt that freedom.”
Coming into the day, Houston sat in fourth place, six strokes behind leader Missouri. But the conditions made for difficult scoring for everyone. Only seven players in the 96-woman field broke par and no one shot better than 1 under. But fortunately for the Cougars, they had two players break par. Bremer birdied her final hole to get under par, and Yuka Kajiki fired a 1-under 71, as well, in what was a huge step up from the 80 she shot on Sunday.
“Yuka’s performance was unbelievable,” said Chadwell, who walked with Kajiki for much of her round. “And she’s capable of that, she had a really good fall. This tournament was really important to her, because she went to high school in the area (at Montverde Academy). I think just what she did in those conditions was great.”
Emily Gilbreth and Megan Thothong shot 76 and 77 on Tuesday, respectively, to round out Houston’s top scorers. Gilbreth, Thothong and Bremer coincidently have been the staple of the Cougars program since its inception. They have been the building blocks of a program that has become highly competitive quite quickly.
Gilbreth and Thothong came in as freshman, while Bremer transferred from UC Davis. Bremer had a rough experience with her first college coach and picking a coach that she would click with right away was the most important thing in her search for a transfer she said. She clicked so well with Chadwell that she never even visited the campus.
Gilbreth, meanwhile, was born and raised in Houston and when she found out about the program getting started in her hometown, she wasted no time.
“My whole recruiting process was really messed up,” Gilbreth said. “I didn’t look anywhere in Texas because I was 16 and I wanted to get as far away from home as possible. But I got a call from a family friend and when I heard UH was going to have a women’s program I immediately called and I said I want to be a part of this program.”
Gilbreth made a blind call to Houston’s men’s golf coach Jonathan Dismuke and asked if she could come on board. Dismuke was familiar with Gilbreth and thought she would be a good addition. So Gilbreth signed with Houston before the program even had a coach.
“It could have went south and really could have,” Gilbreth said. “I couldn’t have planned this better. This worked out so well.”
Gilbreth and Bremer didn’t mince any words on why they thought the team has been able to become so competitive so quickly: hard work and Gerrod Chadwell.
“(Chadwell) is an amazing recruiter, hands down I think that’s why,” Bremer said. “He has set the bar high and we work incredibly hard, I think that’s part of the reason because of how high we set the bar.”
Said Gilbreth: “It comes from (Chadwell) he has a huge drive to be successful and he wants to stay and build a program. We work with “Train to be Clutch.” We work in a lot of aspects off the course to bring those traits to the golf course.”
Chadwell admits his team hasn’t met his expectations yet, but “those expectations were probably unfair,” he said. But they’re ranked No. 46 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings and will only move up with the win. They’re likely not ready to compete for a national title but they’ve proven they can hang around with some of the country’s top teams. And they’ve done so without getting players that are ranked as highly coming out of high school as other top schools.
“The biggest sell so far has had to be our coaches, because that’s all we really had since there was no program,” Chadwell said.
The coaches were enough for players like Gilbreth and Bremer, and they may be enough for players in the future. But if the Cougars continue to win, there will be plenty of other selling points.
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