Lady Crusaders

McKenna Ralston and her Mary Hardin-Baylor teammates tee off today in the NCAA Division III Women’s Golf Championships in Florida.

The Mary Hardin-Baylor women’s golf team entered the American Southwest Conference tournament in April without a win during a challenging spring season. In fact, the Lady Crusaders — winners of two titles last fall — had finished in third place once, fourth twice and fifth once.

UMHB’s five-player lineup included sophomore Olivia Robinson, who suffered a torn ACL while skiing in between semesters, and freshman Annie Hasselbach, a Rockdale graduate who played in only one fall tournament.

In the final round of the conference tournament at Austin’s Avery Ranch Golf Club, senior Emily Ming struggled to a 94 that was dropped. But her coach encouraged her to find redemption as UMHB went into a team playoff against Texas-Tyler, and Ming did by sinking a downhill, 8-foot, must-make putt to extend the playoff to a second hole.

When the Lady Crusaders dominated that hole to win by seven strokes, they had their first ASC championship since 2013 and first under fifth-year coach Jackie Ralston. And senior McKenna Ralston, the coach’s daughter and a former Temple standout, followed in her older sister McKenzie’s footsteps by capturing the individual crown.

Discussing her team’s improbable, emotional victory that qualified UMHB for this week’s NCAA Division III Women’s Golf Championships in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., Jackie Ralston couldn’t help but wonder if divine intervention played a role.

“To have the opportunity to do something I’ve been waiting for since I got here, and for it to happen with these five players, it’s a Cinderella story. We knew we needed a miracle, and glory to God. He helped us get here,” said Ralston, whose team — including junior Cassidy Rawls — tees off in the first round this afternoon at Mission Inn Resort & Club’s El Campeon course.

“I mean, we were beside ourselves (with excitement). We relive that playoff every day and I’m letting them enjoy it every day. I want them to enjoy this, and we’ll come up with a game plan (for the national tournament) and stick with it.”

The only Texas school to qualify for nationals, UMHB is seeded 13th in a 25-team field that also includes six individuals. The Lady Crusaders play the second round Wednesday morning.

After Thursday’s third round, the field will be cut to the low 15 teams and the low six players not on those teams for Friday’s final round at El Campeon, a challenging track that features undulating greens, water on 13 of 18 holes and rolling terrain not typical of Florida courses.

UMHB won its first Division III women’s golf national championship in 2013, the final year of coach Darla Kirby’s long, successful tenure. Although achieving another national title probably isn’t realistic for the current Lady Crusaders, Jackie Ralston said her squad still has hopes and aspirations.

“There are some favorites. Making the cut by being in the top 15 teams, that’s our goal. We’d love to be in the top five, and we have the talent,” said Jackie Ralston, who in her first year in 2014 guided UMHB to a runner-up finish in the national tournament at El Campeon.

“The course is set up a little different, a little shorter than 2014 and ’15, so it could be anybody’s game. Our girls might not be the best ball strikers, but they’ve all worked hard on their short game and can get the job done.”

McKenna Ralston leads UMHB with a 78.11 scoring average and fired rounds of 76 and 74 to win ASC medalist honors by two strokes, adding an individual conference championship to the back-to-back titles sister McKenzie won from 2014-15.

One year after McKenzie finished as the 2014 national runner-up by two shots at El Campeon, McKenna — then a Lady Crusaders freshman — was there to watch McKenzie as she prevailed by four strokes on the same course to become UMHB’s first athlete to win an individual national championship in Division III.

This week, McKenzie — now Southwestern’s assistant golf coach for men and women — will return the favor by coming back to Mission Inn to support her sister as McKenna aims to go out with a bang in her final college competition.

“She’s coming in here on a high and she has great dreams,” Jackie Ralston said of McKenna. “She’d love to win this and make some history for UMHB, and she thinks she can do it. If she could shoot 75 or 76 every day, she could contend. She will be aggressive.”

The even-keeled Rawls has the Lady Crusaders’ second-best scoring average at 80.68 and tied for seventh place at conference. Robinson is right behind her at 81.08 and shared 11th in the ASC.

After tearing a knee ligament while skiing, Robinson had surgery in January and didn’t play again until April 9, shooting 82-93 in UMHB’s final conference tuneup. On the second playoff hole at Avery Ranch, Robinson’s birdie plus her teammates’ three pars clinched the Lady Crusaders’ title and trip to nationals.

“When Olivia rolled her putt in for birdie, we went nuts,” Jackie Ralston said, adding that the Lady Crusaders endured a wild swing of final-day emotions because the tournament scoring system first indicated they had won the title by two shots, then showed UMHB lost by one before finally confirming that UMHB and UT-Tyler had matching 636 totals. “When we heard we lost by one, we lost it emotionally. We thought it was over. To then have to go to a playoff, they played like troopers.”

McKenna Ralston savors the entire up-and-down experience.

“This season has been wild. I don’t think I could’ve asked for a better senior year because it had a little bit of all emotions,” she said in an interview released by UMHB. “I have never had so much fun on and off the course than I have with this team.”

Hasselbach played several sports for Rockdale and helped the Lady Tigers reach the Class 3A state golf tournament three straight years. Concentrating on golf, she’s steadily improved as a freshman and shot two 84s to share 16th place at conference.

“Annie’s been a true beacon of light,” Jackie Ralston said. “She’s a great teammate and so coachable.”

Said Hasselbach in an online interview: “Being a national qualifier is an extreme honor, one I never even imagined I would receive in my wildest dreams.”

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