There is a fine, almost invisible line that all athletes reach at some point. The line that separates thinking you can do something and knowing you can do it.
Jennifer Elsholz crossed that line in smashing fashion this summer, and now she wants to help her teammates on the University of Toledo women’s golf team experience the same journey.
Elsholz, a UT senior, accomplished a rare daily double, winning both the Golf Association of Michigan’s (GAM) stroke-play championship and the Michigan Women’s Amateur match-play title in the same year. It has been done only five times.
“It was really cool to win both in the same summer,” Elsholz said. “It really hasn’t set in yet. But after I shot 69 in the first round of the GAM my whole mind-set changed. I thought, ‘You’re supposed to be here. You’re supposed to shoot that score.’ And everything sort of followed.”
As a freshman at UT, Elsholz averaged 83.3 strokes per round. A year later it was 77.9. Last season, it was 76.9.
Here’s the thing. At the time she arrived in Toledo from Forest Hills Eastern High School in Grand Rapids, Mich., a 76.9 stroke average would have ranked Jennifer’s season as the third best in school history. Last year, however, it was only third best on the Rockets’ team.
Women’s golf is one of those college sports that often falls through the media cracks. So we’ll play catch-up here and tell you that some rather impressive things have been going on over the past decade at UT under Nicole Hollingsworth, the program’s first and only full-time coach.
Hollingsworth’s UT teams have won 21 tournament championships, and 10 of her players have earned individual medalist titles. She has coached 16 Academic All-Americans. If you’ve met her, you’re not likely to forget her. Coach Nicole is a dynamo, a bundle of energy who eats, breathes, sleeps, and probably dreams women’s golf.
Last spring her team was included in the Central District Invitational, hosted in Florida by Michigan State, for the first time ever, shattered the school’s tournament scoring record by 18 strokes, and raised a bunch of eyebrows with a sixth-place finish in a big-league field.
The folks at Golfweek, a publication that pours both ink and money into college golf, noticed. Next month, when the Golfweek Challenge, among the most prestigious of women’s events, tees off in Vail, Colo., the Rockets will be there. Hollingsworth has been a head coach for 17 years, at Ohio and Kansas before UT, and has never had a team invited until now.
So it has been quite a climb for Hollingsworth and her Rockets. That includes life in the Mid-American Conference.
Years and years ago, Kent State got the jump on a lot of mid-majors, most of which were dumping large-denomination bills into football’s bottomless pit, by instead devoting greater resources to so-called minor sports. So there are wannabe football factories and there is Kent, which is a golf factory on both the men’s and women’s sides.
It is the only school to ever win the annual MAC women’s tournament. Sixteen straight, in fact. The Flashes sport a national-caliber program.
For so long, Hollingsworth was sending a Conestoga wagon to the races against a Ferrari.
“We used to lose by 80 to 100 strokes [over 54 holes],” UT’s coach said.
There is still a disparity.
It has been narrowed by Hollingsworth’s nonstop fund-raising efforts, by a greater commitment from the athletic department, and because of UT’s four-year-old indoor golf facility in the Fetterman Training Complex.
There is finally both quality and depth on the roster. The players have done the rest.
The Rockets have finished second to Kent in each of the last two MAC championships, by 28 and 21 strokes, which is narrow considering 15 rounds figure in the scoring.
“For maybe the first time, I could tell the kids believed,” Hollingsworth said.
UT’s top four players — juniors Sathika Ruenreong (a two-time, All-MAC golfer) and Manisa Isavas, and seniors Elsholz and Stephanie St-Jean from Findlay — all return for this upcoming season.
Elsholz learned over the last two months how it feels to cross that fine line between hoping and believing. Now, she wants to cross it again with her teammates.
“It’s really exciting,” Elsholz said. “Last year was great with four [tournament] wins as a team and coming so close in the MAC. We pretty much have our whole family back together. So, yeah, winning the MAC is the No. 1 goal. It’s what we’re shooting for. Everything leading up to that is a rung on the ladder.
“Kent is a great program, but it’s going to happen eventually. I really want this to be the year.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.