Campbell women’s golf coach John Crooks: “We have some incredible talent”

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(Campbell women’s golf coach John Crooks with junior Kaylin Yost. | Photo by Bennett Scarborough)

On April 14, the Fighting Camels women’s golf team will open play in the Big South Championship, which will be held at the Patriot Golf Club in Ninety Six, S.C. A tournament win there would give the women’s golf program at Campbell its 12 conference title and berth in its 16th NCAA Regional since since John Crooks became head coach of the program in 1991. (Crooks also coaches the men’s team, which has won five conference titles since 1990.)

Crooks says he has coached a lot of good women’s golf teams at Campbell. But he doesn’t think he has ever had as many good players on one team as he does this season. “There are nine players, and any one of them has been the best one on the team on any particular day,” says Crooks, who has the second most tournament wins (69) in NCAA division I history among active coaches of women’s programs.

This year’s squad had won five tournaments through the end of March, and is ranked No. 33 in the most recent Golfstat NCAA Division 1 head-to-head national ratings. Through March, five different golfers at Campbell have been named the Big South Women’s Golfer of the Week: sophomore Brooke Bellomy, the 2012 Big South Freshman of the Year; sophomore Lisbeth Brooks; junior Maria Jose Benavides; senior Teresa Urquizu; and junior Kaylin Yost, the 2012 Big South Women’s Golfer of the Year.

Crooks talked to us about this year’s team, his coaching philosophy, and why he has stayed at Campbell for a Q&A. Scroll down to see what he also has to say about each of the nine players on the women’s team.

How good is this team?

There are nine players on my team, and every one of them has been the best on the team on any particular day. But, six of them have proven consistent; and it’s impossible to talk about the strength of the team and not talk about how good those six were in the fall. I don’t care which team you are in the country; if you have somebody ranked in the Top 200 in the nation, they’re good. At one point last fall, I had all six ranked in the Top 200. That just means we have some incredible talent on the women’s golf team. [Editor’s note: Those six were sophomore Brooke Bellomy, junior Maria Jose Benavides, senior Teresa Urquizu, junior Kaylin Yost, sophomore Lisbeth Brooks and freshman Tahnia Ravnjak.]

How would you rank this team with other teams you’ve coached here?

I think history is going to tell us. We’ve had an outstanding program for a great number of years. We’ve had a lot of really good teams. Once upon a time, in 1998, we qualified for nationals and finished 14 in the nation. There were other good players on that team, but there were two stars. It’s very possible that we could have five stars on this current team. When they’re good, they’re very good.

What makes them so good?

Golf is an individual sport first; in college, we turn it into a team sport. Each of these young ladies come in being the best from their regions, whether it was Lisbeth coming from Wisconsin, Tahnia from Australia, Teresa from Spain, Kaylin from Florida, Maria Jose from Mexico. Six players were the best from where they came from, and then they get here and realize there are five other people that are just like them and just as good as them. The internal competition on the team is what is driving each of their successes. It’s almost a love-hate situation. They love each other, and they know that their teammates are very good players. At the same time, they hate losing to anybody.

How do you manage a tight group of individuals who are also each other’s competitors?

They are good young people, and there are certainly some flare ups; but if a situation occurs, we deal with it and move on. And as good as they are on the golf course, they are better people. They genuinely care about each other, and they care about doing the right thing. We have a talk on the team about making Campbell proud, and they do.

What are the goals for the team this season?

First goal is to be one of the 72 teams invited to the NCAA Regionals. The way to do that is to win the conference championship. And that is never, ever a given. You can’t control that. All you can to do is prepare your team, but you don’t know what other teams will do. Last year, we made it to regionals; and with nine holes to play on the final day we were within position to advance to the national championships. In fact, we had the lowest score on one particular round of any of the teams there. We knew we could compete on the national level, but then, on those last nine holes, we made mistakes and didn’t get it done. Everybody on the team saw how close we got; the players understand that only 24 teams advances to nationals and all five players have to be at the top of the games when it counts.

How do you keep them focused on that ultimate goal of making it nationals?

There are not a lot of rah-rah speeches. In some sports, like football, there is a great deal of emotional burst to start of the game. But I’ve been coaching for 20 some years, and in those years, I’ve learned that I to try to keep the emotions in check. I have to keep them at a level keel, because some days we tee off at 8 o’clock in the morning and play for 10, 11 hours; and there can be big emotional shifts within those hours. Maybe my role is more of trying to keep things rather calm.

You’ve been here for a couple of decades. Why have you stayed?

Because I love it.

Why? And why do you think you’ve been so successful here?

Campbell has been very supportive of our program. We’ve got one of the best golf facilities in the nation; and when I’m recruiting athletes to Campbell, I’m able to talk to them about getting a great education and improving their golf game. I truly believe that Campbell might be the best place in the country to go to school. The people who come here — every single asset they need, they have. I’m just fortunate to be in a position where I can help them.

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Meet the Women’s Golf Team

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(The Campbell women’s golft team. Front row, left to right: Kaylin Yost, Teresa Urquizu, Tahnia Ravnjak, Brooke Bellamony. Back row, left to right: Mary-Katelyn Holanek, Babette lemberger, Maria Jose Benavides, Lisbeth Brooks, Ali Prazak. | Photo by Bennett Scarborough)

John Crooks, head coach of the Fighting Camels women’s golf team, also shared with us what he wants people to know about each of the players on the squad.

Brooke Bellomy, sophomore from Ona, W.Va.

“Brooke started off well her freshman year but then got mono. That was a major hit. It wasn’t until this past fall that she was 100 percent healthy again. She started off the year winning the first tournament in record fashion. She let the others know very quickly she was one to be reckoned with.”

Maria Jose Benavides, junior from Lerma, Mexico

“She played a lot as a freshman. When she came back to school her sophomore year, she learned an important lesson: if you don’t continue to try to improve, then it’s possible to lose your spot. But Maria has an internal drive that a lot people don’t have. She did things necessary to improve her skillset. When we put her back in, she proved that she could be the best player, too.”

Lisbeth Brooks, sophomore from Waunakee, Wisc.

“The people on the team recognize her as the hardest worker. She started to run on her own in addition to our conditioning. I’ve heard that the cross country coach saw her running and asked if she was interested in joining the team. She’s one who goes to bed every night knowing she did the best she could do that day.”

Mary-Katelyn Holanek, freshman from Cary, N.C.

“She has been extremely supportive of everybody on the team, almost to her own detriment. She didn’t want to make the others feel bad by beating them too bad. In our very first qualifying round this year, she came in and beat every one of them. And then something crept into her swing that’s doing more damage than good, and we haven’t been able to get rid of that yet. But once she does, she’s right in the game.”

Babette Lemberger, sophomore from Vienna, Austria

“She has excellent swing fundamentals, and she’s learning to match the art of scoring with the technique she has. She is working really hard. Our person in charge of conditioning just recognized her for best effort.”

Ali Prazak, junior from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

“She has the distinction of being the longest hitter on the team. She had a very good summer, and represented the Virgin Isles in the World University Games in China. But when she got back to school, for whatever reason, she went through a little slump. Rather than using her year of eligibility, we made the choice to redshirt her, which will give her options ahead.”

Tahnia Ravnjak, freshman from Cordeaux Heights, Australia

“She’s from Australia. She had some culture shock, but never once have I heard her say, ‘We did it this way in Australia.’ People say that freshmen have a lot more enthusiasm than experience, but she has brought both enthusiasm and experience.”

Teresa Urquizu, senior from San Sebastian, Spain

“Our senior, our captain. She comes from a golfing family. One of Teresa’s neighbors is José María Olazába, who was the captain of the Ryder Cup European team. Teresa has been around golf enough to know that nothing is ever given to you and the more you practice, the more you get. “

Kaylin Yost, junior from Pembroke Pines, Fla.

“I think when people meet Kaylin, she’s so nice that some people might think ‘This is too good to be true.’ But no, she really is that nice. She’s a really talented player and a good student who has overcome a lot of hardships.”

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