FORT SMITH — Devastation. Heartbreak. Incredulity.
Such were the emotions felt by the University of Arkansas Fort Smith women’s golf team when their final season ended just four strokes short of qualifying for the Division II National Championship of the NCAA.
The mindset of the program after its dreams were dashed was to work through the offseason in hopes of not falling short again. Their efforts show. The Lady Lions are off to a historic start to the fall season with back-to-back wins.
“It was so heartbreaking to miss out on the national championships,” said UAFS coach Daniel Hayden. “You can tell they’ve invested a lot this summer to do another race. This group works hard and is very humble. They’re just getting started.”
Sophomore Sydney Williams has been a big part of the success of the past two seasons. She’s back this year, leading the team in scoring so far with an average score of just under 72 and is 1 over par this season.
Williams was fourth (146, plus-6) at the team’s first event in Oklahoma, then finished second (141, under-3) in Arizona. In her final event, Williams led the field in the par 3 with a score of under 2 and netted seven birdies for the Lady Lions while taking all-tournament honours.
When deciding where to play at the next level, Williams wanted to provide a spark to help turn a program around. It’s safe to say she’s found her home with UAFS.
“(Coach Hayden) gave me this opportunity and I really liked what I saw in the program,” Williams said. “I could see things were starting to develop. I wanted to be part of something special.”
Williams started playing golf at the age of 8 and began to take the sport a little more seriously by training a few years later in college. An aunt, who was able to see her play at the last tournament, transmitted the passion for golf to Williams.
It worked well for her.
“This season has been awesome,” Williams said. “I’m playing the best golf of my life. There’s a lot of work ahead of events. But playing and competing is the fun part. After the tournament, looking back, it’s all worth it.”
Williams didn’t know it at the time, but she pulled off one of the biggest shots of the season to help secure Lady Lion’s victory in the final tournament. On her final hole of the event, she putt twice from about 40 feet to finish with a par.
A teammate earlier in the day made a four putt on the tricky shot. After sinking the shot, UAFS took a break with the only team ahead of them, giving up their lead after that.
“I had no idea the size,” laughed Williams. “I just wanted to do my best there. I really liked the greens there and got a good putt on them. It worked for us.”
Those around her describe Williams as a hardworking, sweet, humble, bubbly and confident team player. Perhaps no one has seen her rise higher than junior teammate Sidney Stramel, who is second on the team this year in shooting 3 over par.
“We got to know each other playing junior golf together,” Stramel said. “We’re from the Dallas area so we’re good friends. We’ve played a lot of games together. I’m so glad she came here. She’s been amazing. She works really hard and I’ve seen the Sydney is one of the hardest workers on our team. She’s a great leader and she’s going to continue.”
The Lady Lions find out with Williams in the lead. But college golf is a team game, and Williams is the first to thank her teammates for her success. She took her game to another level, but Stramel was there with her as well.
The duo capped off their season last year by posting a school-record final 68 (-4) in regional play. They didn’t look back after that. Many other Lady Lions stepped up to make a big impact. Marvelyn Kartika led the team in scoring at the first event of the year, finishing second overall with a 145 (5-over). Simone Campise and Maisie Liddell provided the depth to secure wins by shooting plus-5 and plus-6 respectively.
“I love being there for my team,” Kartika said. “There are ups and downs. This is golf. This season has been so much fun. Before going to the second tournament, I told the coach that we were going to win. I felt like that we were going to do it again, and we did. is a special group.”
The team has come a long way since last year. The program has already surpassed its win total and is hoping for more. The Lady Lions won just one tournament last year and averaged a sixth-place finish per team. With the added confidence of back-to-back wins, they feel the sky is the limit now.
“I can say we’ve changed from last year as a team,” Williams said. “We are more confident and know what we can do. I think we all trust each other and support each other. Team success is about trust. I know that if I don’t play well, someone else will pick me up “I think no matter what, we’re happy for each other. It’s a lot easier to play well when you have that kind of support. I tried to remind myself all summer that I wanted to help this team and contribute. I knew I had to work hard because there is a lot of talent in this team. They push me to be better.”
If the team isn’t working together at Hardscrabble Country Club for their next event, you could probably see them together somewhere else. The Lady Lions love to go out, dine in Fort Smith, attend country music concerts and, like in their last tournament, go hiking.
The Lady Lions now face their biggest test of the season on Monday and Tuesday when they tee off in the Western Regional Preview at the Golf Club in Dallas. The field will include three of the top eight programs at this level, among many other strong contenders. Six of the team’s nine members hail from Texas and many are familiar with the course, as the team opened its season there last year. This got them thinking about how nice it would be to play three-on-three in tournaments.
“I thought how cool it would be to win the first two events before the season even started,” Williams said. “I haven’t thought about it too much. But after we won the first one, I said we can do it. We know what we can do. It would be so great to get another one for a lot of people. us in our home country.”