Usually, it takes well over a year to get a college sports program under way. There’s a coaching staff to hire, players to recruit, a schedule to put together and, in the case of a golf program, the need to find a place to play and practice.
Illinois-Chicago went about it differently. Once athletic director Jim Schmidt decided to go ahead with women’s golf and hired Carol Rhoades to coach the Flames, everything has been fast-tracked.
“When they offered me the position, I thought they meant our first season would be in 2012-13,” Rhoades said. “They said we start in August (of 2011). I said we can’t, and the chancellor (Paula Allen-Meares) said, ‘Oh, yes you can.’ ”
And Rhoades has done just that. She recruited a six-woman team, five Chicago-area players bolstered by Miami resident Alexandra Perez, the Flames’ No. 1 player all season. Rhoades got the Flames into a number of tournaments in both the fall and spring seasons to lead up to their first appearance in the Horizon League conference tournament. And, while the Flames aren’t hosting a tournament in their first year, she coaxed Cog Hill into providing access to their superior practice facility.
It helped that this wasn’t Rhoades’ first coaching assignment. Two decades ago, she was head coach of the women’s team at William and Mary.
“Women’s golf has changed so much,” Rhoades said. “The level of play is better, and the number of programs has increased.”
UIC’s expansion into women’s golf is a case in point. The Flames do not have men’s golf and there’s no immediate plan to add it. But women’s golf is working out just fine – especially considering Rhoades, unable to find players among the student body, recruited an all-freshman class.
“We’ll bring in two players next year, possibly a third,” Rhoades said, mindful of having to replace the majority of a team down the line.
Along with Perez, who tied for sixth in the Valparaiso Invitational early in the season, Rhoades’ aces are Kayla Stueland, of Geneva, a four-time qualifier for the IHSA’s high school championship, and Elizabeth Curtiss, of Byron, who won the IHSA’s Class A title two years ago. It’s a good class, especially considering the six are dividing 4.5 scholarships.
“People want a full allotment, and we don’t have that,” Rhoades said.
That’s typical of golf programs across the board. While Big Ten schools Northwestern – in part because of famous alumnus Luke Donald – and Illinois – which boasts alum Steve Stricker and a fine player in coach Mike Small – get most of the attention, DePaul, Loyola and Chicago State also tee it up.
Loyola is also in the Horizon League, with Willow Hill general manager Adam Kwiatkoski coaching the men and Jason Calhoun guiding the women. Led by sophomore Carey Farley, the women’s team won twice in the fall and boasts six top-four finishes in seven tournaments.
Big East member DePaul, with only a men’s team, leans on freshman Jan Juelicher, sophomore Max Mayer, like Juelicher a native of Germany, and senior Ben Westley, of Minneapolis, on the men’s side.
Chicago State, while located in a depressed area of the city’s South Side – and on the original site of Calumet Country Club, which moved to Homewood in the 1920s – plays out of nearby Harborside International, the 36-hole gem built atop a landfill.
Chicago State’s women’s team was the first to make noise. Coach Alexis Mihelich, who left after last season to take over Southern Illinois, took a last-place team and turned it into a contender, winning three tournaments last year and placing third in the Great West Conference.
So far, Kyle Stefan, Mihelich’s successor, is on the same track. The Cougars placed second in the recent Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne Spring Classic. Senior Dana Flores was sixth individually, while junior Andrea Rosado, whose spring scoring average of 80.3 has jumped her ahead of Flores, tied for 10th.
The men’s team also has a new coach in three-time Illinois Open champion Marty Schiene, and, with only two seniors, is rebuilding.
Rhoades, building anew, knows the feeling.
“They have such a fresh attitude,” she said of her UIC players. “We’ve got three weeks left, and we’ve talked about how much these players have grown since August. Our prospects are bright.”
Mistwood owner Jim McWethy’s ambition to become a player in the Chicago golf market shows no bounds. On top of his $6 million renovation of Mistwood, last week McWethy bought Ditka’s Sports Dome in Bolingbrook, and plans to renovate it into a golf-and-dining facility managed by the Mistwood staff. That will mean an end to the softball and other games played under roof.
The facility was associated with former Bears coach Mike Ditka in name only. He was supposed to get royalties from the business, but told the Chicago Tribune the original owners always told him they weren’t turning a profit. He made only one appearance there.