Building a strong foundation for a women’s golf team at a university that’s never had one is no easy feat. The challenge doesn’t intimidate new University of North Florida head coach Joanne Steele. She’s fought tougher battles. “It puts things in perspective when you have doctors telling you that you only have a month left to live,” Steele said. “It makes other challenges seem a little less tough. And it prepares you for anything. I’m prepared for what comes next in my life, and in the upcoming season.” Steele has already recruited her first class of six student-athletes who she’ll lead into the inaugural season of the UNF women’s golf team. It’s the start of a new athletic program for UNF, and Steele said it’s been a welcome change for her to start fresh after many years in which her future seemed hazy. Warning signs Steele grew up in Helena, Mont., and was indoctrinated into the sporting life early. Her six brothers played sports year-round, and Steele always pushed herself to keep up. She found a niche in track but later turned to golf when she found herself getting winded before many of the other runners. That was her first sign that everything wasn’t all right. But like any motivated competitor, she tried to simply power through the pain. “I just thought everyone was winded and didn’t want to complain about it,” Steele said. “I didn’t suspect it was anything worse than that.” Her transition to golf proved to be a smart call. Steele excelled in high school and landed a scholarship to play at Jacksonville University. She played all four years there and gained an appreciation for Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, worlds — and climates — away from her small Montana hometown. She stuck around the region for a year after graduation and worked as an assistant golf pro at Amelia Island Plantation Resort before moving back home. That’s when she got her first coaching opportunity. She was hired at the University of Montana as an assistant and promoted to head coach after only a year. She led the squad for 16 years and never missed a beat, even when she was fighting for her life. Starting fresh Steele was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 1999 after the birth of her second daughter. The condition worsened over the years — more shortness of breath and irregular heart rhythms — to the point that a heart transplant was a necessity. The transplant was received right at the wire — Steele said her doctors told her she would’ve died if she had to wait another month for a donor. After the 2006 procedure and months of recovery, Steele was back on track and started contemplating the next phase of her life. She said she’d wanted to move back to Jacksonville, the setting of her college glory days, for years. The opportunity, however, had yet to present itself. That changed last year. Steele saw an article on the UNF Athletics website advertising the formation of a women’s golf team and reached out to Athletics Director Lee Moon. Moon said he noticed in Steele the motivation and grit needed to help guide the Ospreys through any first-year growing pains. “Joanne has the knowledge, experience and competitive drive to build a highly successful program at UNF,” he said. And Steele thinks the team she spent hundreds of hours recruiting is ready to blaze out of the gates and challenge the rest of the Atlantic Sun Conference in 2012-2013. “I believe the team we are assembling puts us in a place to compete for Atlantic Sun Championships immediately,” Steele said. “We're very excited.” One key factor in the coming year will be their mental and physical toughness, Steele said. She wanted her inaugural recruiting class to be able to weather any potential difficulties tied to the first year of a program. “We’re going to be the underdogs coming out — we know that,” she said. “And I like that. We have a young team. But they’re good. I want to set a high standard right from the start. Top three in the conference is possible. I’m a competitor, and they are too. They’re tough. With that motivation and the support from the University, we can really thrive.” That kind of toughness can take you far. Steele knows that better than anyone.