Western Courier

Lukkarinen hopes to repeat success

By Tom Loftus

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Just four short months ago, Lia Biehl Lukkarinen was like an interior designer who is only moments away from putting the finishing touches on her dream home.

Today, Biehl Lukkarinen finds herself with blueprints, high hopes and talented building blocks – but almost certainly back to laying a foundation once again.

The affable coach of Western Illinois University’s women’s golf team enters the fall season with many new faces, and a tough act to follow.

Last spring, the Leathernecks achieved their best-ever finish at the Summit League Championships, the runner-up position behind champion Oral Roberts.

“We have to be thrilled with that, but we have to be unsatisfied, since we haven’t won a conference championship yet,” Biehl Lukkarinen said. “It’s going to be challenging, (since we lost) the three really talented seniors who have graduated. That’s going to be tough, but I’m excited about the new girls that we have coming in, and hopefully they can kind of pick up the torch and keep it going for us.”

This fall, Biehl Lukkarinen will have to make do with the services of four of her most talented performers from last season. Claire Gursh, Tara Peterman and Lindsay Wandrey have graduated, and senior Emily Brink is already lost for the 2011-12 season with an injury. All four finished among the top 25 golfers in conference this past April.

On the bright side, a quartet of promising freshman recruits could make an immediate impact for the Leathernecks.

Nikki Tatham, who led Moscow (Idaho) Senior High School to two straight team titles while placing second as an individual her senior year; Jessica Knepp, who was also a state runner-up as a high school senior, for El Paso-Gridley (Ill.) High, and a four-time state qualifier; Abby Ball, a sectional co-champion with Knoxville High in Galesburg last fall, and a three-time state qualifier; and Ashley Jeffers, a four-time state qualifier with Lakota West High in West Chester, Ohio, are all highly regarded by Biehl Lukkarinen, who is eager to see how quickly they adjust to playing at the NCAA level.

All four freshmen also achieved numerous academic honors while in high school. Ball was the valedictorian at Knoxville.

“Freshmen are always kind of wild cards,” Biehl Lukkarinen said. “The key in recruiting is to figure out who hasn’t peaked yet. Hopefully, the girls who have achieved a lot, continue to achieve, and I’m hoping that some who maybe didn’t have the senior year that they wanted will be kind of motivated to make it happen.”

Tatham, Knepp, Ball and Jeffers are expected to immediately challenge returning veterans like seniors Samantha Hainline, Nerissa Hetzel, Kristen Palmer and Jaleesa Burton, juniors Alexa Arent and Kelsea Visalli, and sophomore Kristi Tschudin for a spot in Biehl Lukkarinen’s top five group.

Tschudin placed second at the Country Youth Classic in Normal, Ill. June 29.

“From my point of view, the traveling spots on the time are fairly wide open, so that should make for some interesting qualifying and competition, to see who we take to our first event,” the Leathernecks coach said.

Western, which will begin practicing once school starts on Monday, Aug. 22, opens its 2011 fall campaign by competing at the Illinois State Redbird Invitational Sept. 10-11.

“Our first events are a lot more difficult this year, in terms of the quality of the field, so… it’s going to be pretty interesting, to be honest,” Biehl Lukkarinen said.

With regard to the Redbird Invite, which will be held at the challenging 6,074-yard par-71 Weibring Golf Club course in Normal, the Leathernecks coach said, “It’s a difficult golf course. The greens are usually really fast… and it will be the first 36-hole competition for most of the freshmen; most of them haven’t played 36 in a competition before. It can be a long day.”

Although a difficult field of competitors awaits her young team at Illinois State, including the defending tournament champion Redbirds as well as Southern Illinois and Bradley, Biehl Lukkarinen said, “The great thing about golf is it’s really you against the golf course, so if you kind of focus on that part, it should kind of take that pressure away.

“If we don’t have the higher finishes that we’ve gotten used to, that’s OK, it just kind of tells us where we are, and you can’t really look at it any other way. You just try to build and learn.”

Although the fall season figures to be a “shaking out” process for the new-look Leathernecks, Biehl Lukkarinen is intrigued by the idea of having new team members challenging established players for positions.

“It’s going to be a lot different… it’s going to be tough, kind of an adjustment for everybody, but it’s always good to have fresh faces and excitement,” she said, adding, “I think that now maybe some of the other (returning) girls will see they have more of an opportunity, and that will make them work a little harder. And then the freshmen, they’ve got the look like, hey, it’s anybody’s ballgame, I just need to come in and play, and do my thing.”

The Leathernecks coach said she realizes that this season may look a lot different on paper for her team, but she is confident that the direction her program is headed is the right one.

“You hope that the majority of your team is going to continue to improve,” Biehl Lukkarinen said. “There may be a little bit of an adjustment period, but you’re really trying to build the program up, and I feel like we’ve done a good job of that. We’ll just keep heading in that direction. That’s all you can hope for.”


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Lukkarinen hopes to repeat success