The NCAA Women’s Division II Championship was the last hurrah for the golf program at Florida Tech, not just for the 2018-’19 college season, but beyond. In January, athletic department officials at the Melbourne, Fla., university announced they were cutting three sports for budget reasons, the men’s and women’s tennis teams joining women’s golf as the casualties.
As it turns out, the Panthers’ demise became a rallying point for coach Chris Saltmarsh’s squad. They won three of their last four spring regular-season tournaments to grab a No. 6 seed in NCAA Regionals. At Cleveland (Tenn.) C.C., they finished fourth and became the last team to advance to the national championship, which was the first time in school history that they earned as spot into the NCAA finals.
From there, the fivesome of seniors Lucy Eaton and Paola Ortiz, junior Lauren Watson, sophomore Noelle Beijer and freshman Megan Dennis continued to play like they had nothing to lose—which in fact was the case. In 54 54 holes of stroke-play qualifying, they claimed team medalist honors by four strokes on the Champion course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and followed it up with match-play wins over Findlay and Southwest Oklahoma State in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
On a sun-drenched Saturday in South Florida, the story went from the ridiculous to the sublime, as the Panthers topped CSU San Marcos to win the NCAA D-II title, 4-1. Eaton (80-81), Ortiz (76-80) and Dennis (79-80) won the first three matches (D-II plays medal match play, where competitors face-off one-on-one but play all 18 holes with the low score winning the “match”). Watson (80-83) gave Florida Tech its fourth point.
Here was Dennis holing out her final putt on the 18th hole to seal the team title.
Florida Tech’s bittersweet victory is reminiscent of another college golf team whose bureaucratic fate fueled an amazing postseason run. In April 2002, the men’s golf team at the University of Minnesota was told that the program would be cut at the end of that season. The Golden Gophers channeled their frustration and disappointment into victories at the Big Ten and NCAA Championships. In the process, they managed to convince school officials to save the team (thanks to a financial boost from golf alumni, including former Open Championship winner Tom Lehman, and other supporters).
For the Panthers, such a lifeline doesn’t appear likely. There are no current plans to try to save the program, at least in the short term. The team's Twitter feed made reference throughout the NCAA Championship to this being the final event for the program.
“This was a very difficult decision for the university, given the great respect we all have for the hard work and dedication of our student-athletes and their coaches,” said Florida Tech athletic director Bill Jurgens in a news release in February announcing the three sports that were being dropped. “The student-athletes affected by this decision are our priority. All scholarship-eligible student-athletes impacted by this reduction will have their athletic scholarships honored for the duration of their undergraduate enrollment at Florida Tech.”
“Having our program cut was a direct hit, yet it has brought us together as a team,” Ortiz told Golfweek earlier this spring. “We’ve learned to appreciate each other more and this has given an extra motivation to the team to prove everybody wrong. Florida Tech women’s golf team is very competitive, it has always been. It wasn’t until now that the team came together stronger than ever to achieve a common goal.”