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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

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Belles move into promising spring season with Holt at the helm

Former 16-year Notre Dame coach leads Saint Mary’s golf to open 2024

Last fall, Saint Mary’s golf put together a stellar six weeks on the course. The Belles claimed two MIAA Jamboree events, moving into their winter offseason with a one-stroke lead in the season-long conference championship.

But mid-October news of head coach Jordan Koehler’s departure for Denver shook up the program’s outlook. Koehler had led Saint Mary’s to NCAA Division III Championship berths in 2021 and 2022, leaving behind 15 team victories in 18-hole rounds across three years.

Most teams wouldn’t have found a stable successor in less than a week’s time. The Belles did, elevating decorated assistant coach Susan Holt to the head coaching position.

How did Saint Mary’s have a retired, 16-year head women’s golf coach at the University of Notre Dame waiting in the wings? Holt herself never would have imagined the answer herself upon her retirement nearly two years ago.

“When I retired from Notre Dame, I thought I was done,” Holt said. “I had put in 32 years at the Division I level, and honestly, I just needed a break – I was just ready. And it was the first time I’d ever felt that way in all those years. It was just time for me to see what else was out there.”

After taking a year to manage her health, Holt took up a couple of smaller jobs within the local community. One of them allowed her to teach at Morris Country Club in South Bend, a place where she rediscovered her passion for coaching. So Holt took action and communicated with the women’s golf program at Saint Mary’s.

“On a whim, I reached out to Jordan [Koehler], who at the time was the head coach at Saint Mary’s,” Holt recalled. “I knew she didn’t have an assistant, so I thought, ‘Hey, if you need any help or want a volunteer assistant, I’m happy to help you out.’ So we connected, and I started working with the team.”

Two months after joining the Belles as an assistant, Holt officially took over as the head coach on November 15, marking her fourth collegiate coaching stop. A four-year playing career at Ohio State led Holt to her first job at Purdue, where she served as the head women’s golf coach from 1990 to 1993. She then coached at South Florida for 13 years, collecting three Conference USA Coach of the Year awards and orchestrating five conference titles. Holt would coach at Notre Dame for the next 16 years, winning three more Big East Coach of the Year honors and leading the Irish to a program-first NCAA Finals appearance in 2011.

More than 30 years later, Holt vividly remembers the birth of her coaching career in West Lafayette, drawing parallels to that role and her new one at Saint Mary’s.

“I kind of feel like I’m back in 1990 with my very first coaching job when I was at Purdue,” Holt reflected. “The evolution of collegiate athletics over the last 32 years has been pretty significant, especially in the world of women’s collegiate golf. I just kind of feel like I’m back almost where I started. Everything about it is just more low-key.”

As the 2024 spring season draws near, Holt is anything but low-key about the talent and potential of her team. Last year, the Belles finished second in the spring MIAA standings, narrowly missing a third straight trip to the NCAA Championship. Holt, who cherishes engagement with younger generations, looks forward to getting underway with a driven group of golfers.

“They work hard, they want to get better, they’re very coachable and I’ve really enjoyed being able to help them and work with them,” Holt said. “I’m seeing improvement in a lot of them already, just with what we’ve been working on. I’m excited for what lies ahead for us. I think there’s a lot of potential here to do some good things.”

That potential starts with the team’s fall performances, in which all eight players on the roster got involved. Sophomore Julia Lizak produced four top-20 finishes, including an outright win at the first MIAA Jamboree. She joins former Second Team All-MIAA selection Katelyn Tokarz, a junior, as another tournament-seasoned golfer for Saint Mary’s.

Sophomore Amanda Melling and senior Haley Angel stepped up their play as well in the fall. While Melling went top-five in two MIAA Jamborees, Angel went top-three twice, finishing her 2023 with a career-low round of 75 at the third Jamboree. Juniors Georgie Kersman and Joanna James also came on strong late, going top-10 in the fall’s final event.

Finally, sophomore Breana Harrington and freshman Colleen Hand round out the Belles’ roster.

“Everybody on our team has competed and played in the top five, which I think is pretty cool,” Holt said. “There’s just been a lot of competition — a lot of healthy competition — within the group. They’re super supportive of each other”

Saint Mary’s will open its spring on Friday at the Trine Spring Classic, which begins at 1 p.m. Coming off a productive Spring Break trip to Tampa, FL and a mild winter in South Bend, the Belles will send all eight golfers on the roster to Zollner Golf Course in Angola, IN.

“We’ll have five competing with the team, and then I’m gonna have the other three just there as individuals competing,” Holt outlined. “That’ll be really good to get everybody out on the same course [in] the same conditions, under a tournament situation.”

The season continues with a loaded April, starting with the Bluffton/Ohio Northern Spring Invite on April 5-6. A week later, the fourth MIAA Jamboree event and the Illinois Wesleyan Kathy Niepagen Spring Fling will arrive. Mid-April will bring the Albion Cascades Invitation, followed by the MIAA Championship from April 22-23.

In the big picture, Holt seeks improvement from her players and projects a fruitful season for her team.

“I think they have a ton of potential [and] a lot of talent,” Holt said. “I think we have a really good chance of winning the conference and making it back to nationals. Saint Mary’s golf has had a really solid history of success at the D-III Championship, and hopefully, we can start building on that and continue it in the future.”