Sept. 9, 2003
The drive for five. After claiming four consecutive Mountain West Championships, the 2003-04 New Mexico golf team isn't content with its current status - it simply wants more. The Lobos return six letterwinners from last season's team and are primed to capture another conference championship under the direction of 2002 LPGA National Coach of the Year Jackie Booth.
The returning players experienced one of the finest seasons in the history of the UNM women's golf program in 2002-03. For the second consecutive year, the Lobos won three team tournaments - including their fourth straight MWC title - and participated in the postseason for their sixth straight year with an appearance at the NCAA Central Regional. The Lobos finished in the top-five in six of their 10 tournaments and nine times in the top 10.
This season the Lobos are focused, determined, and most importantly, experienced. Coach Booth welcomes back four All-Mountain West Conference honorees to the lineup, including junior Kailin Downs, who was named the 2003 Mountain West Golfer of the Year. The Lobos added more firepower to the lineup with the addition of sophomore transfer Christine Fernandez, the 2003 WAC Freshman of the Year out of Tulsa, and heralded freshman Ashley Rollins, who won the AJGA Junior Cup over the summer. Letterwinners Kellyn Newman and Kelli Van Winkle also return to the lineup.
"For me, it's really exciting," said Booth. "We've improved our ranking each year, and this year I see us being ranked in the top five. No matter where we end up, we're not happy with it until we take it to the next level." Last year's young squad competed with the nation's top teams at every tournament and finished the season with a No. 12 ranking. This year, Booth expects UNM's depth and experience to take the program to even new heights.
"This group knows how to win," Booth said. "They know how hard you have to work to win and they have the determination to put in the time and effort that it takes to get to where we want to go. When they set a goal, they know what they have to do to achieve that goal.
"This team came into its own last year," Booth added. "They had a lot of confidence and went into every tournament knowing they had a chance to win. This year, I can't even imagine what's going to happen. We have more depth, which means we're going to have talented players staying home. They're going to push each other to a whole new level."
Booth will look to senior Katrina Leckovic and junior Kailin Downs to lead the team this season. Leckovic captured medallist honors at the 2003 MWC Championships, earning all-conference recognition for the second straight season. Her tournament score of 216 and second round of 67 at the conference championships set new MWC marks, as well as personal bests. Leckovic was one of three Lobos to compete in every tournament last season and finished second in conference stroke average at 75.8.
In just two seasons, Downs has already rewritten much of the Lobo record book. Last spring, she became the first player in MWC history to be named Golfer of the Year in back-to-back seasons and was the only conference player to be named Golfer of the Month twice. After setting the freshman stroke average with a 74.9 in her first season, Downs didn't slow down in her sophomore campaign, establishing a new school mark with a 74.0 average. Downs, who was named honorable mention All-America, placed in the top 10 in six tournaments, finished the season ranked No. 24 in the nation and was the number one sophomore in the country according to GolfStat.
"Katrina and Kailin both have the ability, the talent and the leadership to lead the team this year," Booth said. "They both lead in very different ways. Katrina is a quiet leader and shows leadership through her work ethic. Kailin is out-spoken and will push the girls on the course."
Junior Christina Spence broke into the lineup last season and garnered all-conference honors after shooting a collegiate tournament low of 223 at the MWC's. Her fourth place finish at the championships was also a career high. Spence finished the year ranked No. 109 after placing fourth in the MWC with a 75.8 stroke average.
"Christina has really been a fun player," Booth said. "She has a lot of charisma and it overflows from her to the rest of the team. She's the one who keeps us positive and motivated. I foresee her doing some excellent things for the team this season."
Off the course, Spence and Kailin Downs were named NGCA Academic Scholars, equivalent to Academic All-America, for the second consecutive year. Shannon Johnson and Kellyn Newman also earned NGCA Scholar honors, giving the Lobos four Academic All-Americans. The same four were also named MWC Scholar-Athletes.
"These girls are the epitome of student-athletes," said Booth. "They take school and golf very seriously, and they understand how privileged they are to have scholarships. They know they owe it to themselves and to the university to give 100 percent every time they tee it up."
Rounding out the list of all-conference returnees is junior Shannon Johnson. Johnson earned All-MWC for the first time in her career in 2003 and finished the season with a 77.9 stroke average. Her best placing of the season was an eighth-place showing at the Dick McGuire Invitational, helping the Lobos claim first place as a team. Johnson played in eight of 10 tournaments and shot a season low 71 in the second round of the UNLV Collegiate Showdown.
"Shannon has been a really pleasant surprise," Booth said. "She's worked really hard not only on her golf game but her golf attitude, and I've seen that turnaround be a real positive for her. It will help her be even a better golfer this season. She is very talented and has a big desire for the team to be successful."
A three-year letterwinner, Kellyn Newman returns to the Lobos for her senior season. Newman competed in six tournaments last season, carding a season-best finish at the MWC Championships. Newman's best score of the year came at the Kent Youel Invitational, where she posted a three-round total of 233.
"Kellyn will have the opporunity to take her game to a new level this year," said Booth. "She has the experience to help lead this team to new heights."
Sophomore Kelli Van Winkle gained valuable experience last year as a freshman, playing in three tournaments. The Roswell, N.M., native improved her skills dramatically upon her arrival and is also one of the team's motivators. Van Winkle shot a season-low round of 76 at the Kent Youel Invitational.
In addition to the six returning players, Coach Booth has added two impressive newcomers. Sophomore transfer Christine Fernandez, who Booth recruited out of high school, will join the Lobos after playing one season at the University of Tulsa. Fernandez posted four top-20 finishes for the Hurricanes and was named the WAC Freshman of the Year. She also earned WAC Player of the Month honors after placing third at the Landfall Tradition, leading Tulsa to the team title.
"Christine is a great addition to our team," Booth said. "She was a highly sought recruit out of high school. Christine has a lot of different golf shots and is fun to watch compete."
Booth is already impressed with incoming freshman Ashley Rollins. A native of Austin, Texas, Rollins won all four of her matches at the AJGA Canor Cup over the summer and was named one of the top 10 players of the year in 2002 by Golf Digest. She earned all-state honors three years and was the number one player at her high school all four years.
"Ashley is one of the best players I've ever signed," said Booth. "This summer she won the AJGA in Austin and made the cut at the U.S. Women's Amateur. She's a determined, aggressive player with very high goals."
In order to be successful, teams must play at the highest competition. Booth has once again scheduled the Lobos to participate in some of the nation's most prestigious tournaments, including the NCAA Preview in Auburn, Ala., the Stanford Intercollegiate, the Regional Challenge and the Arizona State Invitational. The Lobos will also host the 25th annual Dick McGuire Invitational Sept. 25-27 at the UNM Championship Course, a golf course that ranks as the top collegiate course in the nation.
With a loaded lineup and a top-notch schedule, the 2003-04 New Mexico Lobos are ready to take on the challenges of being one of the nation's premier teams.
"This team has great chemistry and has a lot of potential as a group," Booth said. "Depth-wise, I think we're right there with the other top teams in the country. The girls are ready for the season and will push each other to new limits. It's going to be fun to watch them grow as a team throughout the season."