KEARNEY — University of Nebraska at Kearney’s women’s golf program has experienced tremendous growth over the last four years.
The Lopers have gone from posting an eighth place finish in the 10-team MIAA Tournament in 2016 to qualifying for their third consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance this spring.
Seniors Danielle Dickerson and Maaika Mestl have been at the center of the program’s rise.
"My freshman year we only had five people on the team with one of them injured," Dickerson said. "Now we have a squad full of girls who are capable of playing in tournaments and putting up good scores."
The Lopers are the ninth seed in the 12-team NCAA Central Regional after being an 11th seed each of the last two years. In 2017, the Lopers qualified for the tournament for the first time in program history.
They placed 11th at the regional in each of the last two years. This year’s team is different, though. They have depth and have displayed consistency throughout the season to boast the lowest stroke total for a team in program history.
"I think the thing we are constantly getting better at is just turning that round that could’ve been an 83 into a 78, 79," coach Shawn Rodehorst said. "Where we’ve gotten a lot better is making our bad rounds, OK rounds."
Mestl has been a steady presence atop the lineup. She has a 78.78 stroke average, which ranks second behind sophomore Nia Station and is about four strokes better than her average last season when she was the Lopers’ fifth-best golfer. Her 78.34 stroke average in spring tournaments is the lowest on the team.
She’s improved her play while also dedicating significant time to academics. She graduated in 3 1/2 years with a 4.0 cumulative GPA as an elementary education K-6 major. She’s pursuing her master’s degree while also working as a para at Meadowlark Elementary this spring.
"I’ve always worked hard in everything I do," Mestl said. "I believe that if you are going to do something, you should put all your effort into it."
After being the Lopers’ No. 3 golfer last year, Dickerson has flown under the radar this season. She didn’t solidify her spot in the Lopers’ lineup until the spring.
She replaced sophomore Lacie Fox, who’s missed the spring season with a shoulder injury, and has provided the Lopers with consistency in the No. 5 spot.
Dickerson played three rounds and posted an average score of 83 in the fall. She returned this spring and experienced better results. In 13 rounds, she has shot an average score of 81.36 to lower her season mark to an 81.71 stroke average. She also has posted four rounds in the 70s.
Her best performance came in the MIAA Championships at the end of April when she recorded a three-day total of 232 (80-75-77) to finish in a tie for 13th place.
Dickerson changed her approach and credits the adjustment for her success. Instead of being frustrated with certain shots throughout a round or a bad score, she’s tried to appreciate her final semester of college golf, she said.
The change in philosophy has paid dividends for her on the golf course. Dickerson earned All-MIAA honorable mention this spring to become the fourth Loper to earn all-league honors since UNK joined the MIAA in 2012-13.
"Compared to where I was as a freshman, I’ve come leaps and bounds," Dickerson said. "It’s nice to get recognized for that."
The Lopers will compete in the three-day regional starting Monday at the par-71 Muskogee Country Club in Muskogee, Okla. The four lowest scoring teams and the four lowest scoring individuals who are not on one of the advancing teams will qualify for the NCAA Championships from May 14 to May 18 in Florida.
"We just need to trust ourselves and keep fighting," Dickerson said. "We’ve made it this far, and let’s finish with a bang because we’ve worked for this. We just need to give it our all."