Clemson finished 20th at the NCAA National Tournament near Chicago last year, an extraordinary accomplishment for first year head coach Kelley Hester and the Clemson program that is just starting its fifth year in 2017-18. Hester became the first Clemson coach in any sport to take a Tiger team to a top 20 finish in his or her first year in 16 years.
The Tigers finished fifth against a strong field at the NCAA Regional at Athens, Georgia, finishing ahead of many outstanding programs, including the host school. The season also included a program best fifth-place finish at the ACC Tournament and the program’s first tournament victory.
So what does Hester and the Tigers do for an encore? With the return of all five starters from last year the outlook is bright. But, with a key starter on the injured list for the fall portion of the season, it might be the spring before this team reaches its true potential.
“I am hopeful that we can draw a lot of confidence from last year, “said Hester, who has taken four different schools to the NCAA National Tournament, a first in NCAA women’s golf coaching history. “We have our top five back from last season and going through our run last year to the national tournament and finishing in the top 20 was a great experience.
“Alice Hewson had a very good year last year and has had a very good summer. I expect that she will return very motivated for her junior year. I know she is ready to take another step forward.”
Hewson was a third-team All-American last year according to Golfweek when she posted a Clemson record 72.39 stroke average. She led the team with 111 birdies and shot 75 or better in 32 of her 36 rounds, including 12 rounds where she scored under par.
The native of the United Kingdom has been a first-team All-ACC selection each of her first two years and finished 30th nationally in the final Golfweek/Sagarin rankings, the second best finish for a Clemson golfer in the short history of the program. She was a member of the European Championship Team this summer and reached match play of the US Amateur.
Ana Paula Valdes returns for her sophomore year after an outstanding freshman campaign. The native of Mexico had a 74.28 stroke average, second to Hewson. She had 14 rounds at par or better, including a Clemson record nine exactly at even par. “Ana Paula has a world class game with a lot of international experience. She is a hard worker.”
Valdes was Clemson’s top player at the ACC Tournament with an eighth-place finish after shooting three consecutive rounds of even par 72. The Academic All-ACC selection also finished ninth at the Greenville Regional and a strong 30th at the NCAA Regional where her second round 69 tied for the best by a Clemson golfer in NCAA Tournament play.
Legacy suffered a wrist injury at the end of last season and will have to rest up during the fall. She was third on the Clemson team in stroke average last year with a 75.00 average. The native of Lexington, S.C., had six under-par rounds, including a 69 in the final round of the UCF Challenge where she helped Clemson to its first tournament victory in history.
“We will miss Sydney Legacy in the fall as she recovers from wrist surgery. It will give someone else an opportunity in the fall and will give us depth in the long run.”
Marisa Messana is the only fourth year senior on the Clemson team. The native of Florida won the Elite 90 Award at the NCAA National Tournament as the top student-athlete in the field. She has a perfect 4.0 GPA and is slated to graduate in December.
“Marisa has been an outstanding representative of our program and I know she wants to have a great senior year. Her success in the classroom speaks for itself.”
On the course, Messana earned her entire four-year scholarship when she shot a team best final round 73 at the NCAA regional in Athens to lead Clemson to its first NCAA National appearance. The three-time Academic Scholar selection by the Golf Coaches Association had a 76.71 average last year.
Kennedy Swann is the fifth returning starter from last year. The native of Austin, Tex. did not enroll in Clemson until January, but she finished fourth on the team in stroke average at 75.83. She shot four-under-par 212 in her first career tournament, helping the Tigers to the UCF Challenge Tournament victory.
“Kennedy gave us a spark in the spring. I don’t think we would have gotten to the NCAA Nationals without her contribution.”
Two other young ladies look to help the squad this year. Ashley Czarnecki is a sophomore who played in two events last year after transferring from Wofford. Calista Rice is a true freshman from Mars Hill, NCAA who finished in the top 10 of the State 3A tournament three times and was a regional champion.