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
“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
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.
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.
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.