Madison Isaacson will be roughly 2,000 miles from Cullowhee, North Carolina, by the time undergraduate commencement services begin at Western Carolina University on May 13. Isaacson, a fifth-year senior, earned a double major in sport management and business administration/law and a minor in marketing, but she won’t walk for her diploma. She has one last golf tournament to play.
When Western Carolina head coach Courtney Gunter found out the Catamounts had qualified for the inaugural Golfweek National Golf Invitational, a 54-hole postseason event similar to the National Invitational Tournament in college basketball, Isaacson was her first call. She wasn’t sure Isaacson would want to forfeit that rite of passage, but Isaacson hardly flinched.
“Graduation or playing in this first tournament in Arizona?” Isaacson said. “This is cooler, for me at least.”
Isaacson goes straight from the NGI at Ak-Chin Southern Dunes in Maricopa, Arizona, to a summer job in Pinehurst, North Carolina. From there, she’ll join the women’s golf coaching staff at Gardner-Webb University as a graduate assistant. Playing the inaugural NGI will go right into her coaching toolkit as something she could perhaps use to help motivate her future players.
“This is something they can reach for,” she said.
The NGI bid came a little unexpectedly for Western Carolina players, who thought they were too low in the rankings (No. 111 in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings) to qualify. But as soon as Gunter learned her team was in, she started calling down her roster. If you’re over it, she said, the season can end now.
“Every single one of them was like, ‘No, coach, let’s do it. That’s what we were working for, we want to go, we’re not done yet,’” Gunter remembered.
Gunter thinks she probably first found out about the National Golf Invitational on Twitter, and it was always in the back of her mind after that.
Western Carolina started the fall with a goal to be in the top 3 in the season-long Southern Conference rankings. Then the Catamounts won their first three tournaments of the fall season, and suddenly goals shifted – especially the one at the top of the page.
“After our fall, with it being so good and us having a decent ranking, our vision now is to make it to postseason, which was really cool for us to do that,” Gunter said.
After Western Carolina’s first two team wins, they were ranked inside the top 100 in the country. Gunter knew that, especially once the spring started, if her team didn’t keep winning, their ranking would likely fall. The Catamounts won their last regular-season tournament but finished third at the Southern Conference Championship. Furman won the Automatic Qualifying spot into NCAA regionals, but Western Carolina players still got a big confidence boost from their performance.
“This year, going into it,” Gunter said, “they knew they were a team that could win.”
That hasn’t been the case the past two seasons, when Western Carolina was eighth and then sixth at conference, and that’s why Gunter’s players were eager for a shot at postseason.
“I feel like they probably felt like they could have done so much more, they were still hungry for it,” Gunter said.
It’s getting more difficult each year for mid-majors to compete with Power 5 teams, and is especially difficult to earn an at-large bid to get into the postseason. Western Carolina hasn’t won its conference AQ since 2007.
The NGI presents a new carrot at the end of the season, however, and Gunter, who competed at the NCAA Women’s Championship twice as a player for the University of North Carolina, knows you can’t understand the postseason until you’ve seen the postseason.
“Most of the teams in this event we haven’t seen all year,” Gunter said of the 10-team NGI field. “It’s a lot of teams with rankings just as good or higher than ours. It’s going to be good experience regardless. It is a postseason event so it’s elevated.”
Once Western Carolina was in the field, it took some additional fundraising to make postseason a reality. As Julie Miller, Western Carolina’s Associate AD for Development and the sport supervisor for the golf programs, put it, how could you tell this team no?
“You play and you compete, you play collegiate sports to win so this is just that next step of winning,” Miller said.
No golf team in Western Carolina history has won more tournaments in a season than this one, which has brought some awareness around campus. Chancellor Kelli Brown even made time for an NGI sendoff so the seniors could get a picture with her in their caps and gowns.
Earlier in the schoolyear, the Catamounts men’s basketball team competed in the Collegiate Basketball Invitational and the women’s volleyball team earned a spot in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship. Now, the athletic department is rallying around women’s golf just as it did for those programs.
“Within the department, we had other coaches say that they would step up and support,” Miller said, “because they know how important it is to grow the brand of Western Carolina University and Catamount Athletics but also supporting each other because winners support winners.”