Anatomy of a National Title

What does it mean to be a championship-caliber athlete at Rollins? Look no further than the women’s golf team.

(Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey) (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey)

Standing on the 18th green at Denver’s CommonGround Golf Course, Annie Dulman ’16 tried to soak in the magnitude of the moment.

Not only had Rollins just won its record sixth NCAA Division II women’s golf championship, but the final act of her college career was bringing home the trophy after an eight-year absence—a long stretch considering the Tars’ five titles from 2003 to 2008.

Hally Leadbetter ’16 (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey) Hally Leadbetter ’16 (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey)

“It felt like a storybook ending,” Dulman said, “We worked so hard and didn’t take anything for granted. I couldn’t ask for more.”

Even for a program that has captured 13 national championships since 1948, amassing countless individual accolades along the way, this season deserves a special place in the history books. In addition to Rollins’ nine-stroke victory in Colorado, Julie Garner was named national coach of the year, four players earned All-American honors, and the squad won three regular-season tournaments, as well as the Sunshine State Conference title.

As with any high-performing team, such lofty results are manifestations of an unseen strategy. To gain a true appreciation of how this group became championship-caliber athletes—and how a legendary coach engineered the winning formula—we must start by traveling back in time.

‘The Linchpin, the Foundation’

The story of this magical season traces its roots to the fall of 2010, when people kept telling Garner about a talented kid at Cardinal Newman High School in Palm Beach Gardens. That young lady just so happened to be Dulman, the daughter of a University of Kentucky golfer whom Garner had competed against while playing for Alabama and Auburn.

Right away, Garner knew she was looking at the future of Rollins golf, someone she deemed “a great student-athlete to build around … the linchpin, the foundation.”

Annie Dulman ’16 (Photo by Jim Hogue Photography) Annie Dulman ’16 (Photo by Jim Hogue Photography)

Despite being recruited by several Division I programs, Dulman signed with Rollins because the school’s academic rigors were on par with the golf team’s storied legacy. It didn’t take long for the newcomer to make her mark, as she won three tournaments, posted seven top-10 finishes, and became the third person in program history to simultaneously earn Division II freshman and player of the year honors.

Meanwhile, Dulman’s friend from the junior golf circuit, Hally Leadbetter ’16, was a first-year student on the golf team at Arkansas. But after her sophomore season, Leadbetter (daughter of renowned swing coach David Leadbetter) wanted to transfer back to her home state of Florida. She didn’t need much convincing that Rollins was the ideal fit.

With Dulman and Leadbetter as juniors, Garner had the core of a team that could really do some damage. To begin the 2014-15 season, things got even more promising when Madison Lellyo ’18 won her first-ever collegiate tournament and fellow freshman Lexie Toth ’18 also got off to a stellar start. With sophomore Paige Lyle ’17 rounding out the top five, Garner took a young team to nationals that had steamrolled through the regular season and was a heavy favorite to win it all.

Lexie Toth ’18 (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey) Lexie Toth ’18 (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey)

Unfortunately, Rollins faltered that year, finishing second behind perennial powerhouse Indianapolis. The Tars, normally so loose and in control, felt the pressure of being in everyone’s crosshairs.

“That stung a lot,” Leadbetter says of the defeat. “The next year, we wanted to come back and win the national championship, and we constantly reminded each other of that. Coach would say, ‘Don’t give up what you want most for what you want right now.’”

Indeed, the team rallied around Garner’s advice and renewed their commitment to winning on the biggest stage. One year later, the same five players flipped the script, relegating the defending champs to a second-place finish.

“Those players had two years to develop a great chemistry and respect for each other’s abilities,” Garner says. “When they came up just short the first time around, that bond created the singleness of the championship mindset.”

Embracing Athletics and Academics

So, what does it take to be a championship-caliber athlete at Rollins? To Garner, who has coached at the College for more than 20 years, it’s about understanding what’s expected of you—and embracing it.

Paige Lyle ’17 (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey) Paige Lyle ’17 (Photo by NCAA Photos/Jack Dempsey)

“You have to take that mantle of responsibility as a player,” she says, “but you also have to understand that when you come here, you haven’t just chosen to be part of a top-tier team athletically, you also have to be committed to academics and the importance of time management. School must come first, and golf is right behind that.”

As Garner points out, her golfers probably miss more days of school because of travel than any other team on campus. Combine that with two seasons (fall and spring), as well as up to 17 hours a week of practice, and the team’s collective GPA of 3.3 is all the more impressive.

At Rollins, such academic prowess reaches across the athletic spectrum. Overall, the College’s 22 varsity teams have maintained at least a 3.0 collective GPA for the past 30 semesters. And this spring, 343 student-athletes made the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll, with 38 earning a perfect 4.0.

Madison Lellyo ’18 (Photo by Jim Hogue Photography) Madison Lellyo ’18 (Photo by Jim Hogue Photography)

“You’ve got to be in it 100 percent,” Lellyo says. “Everyone on our team, if we’re not studying, we’re on the course. You definitely have to sacrifice some things, but the rewards are so worth it.”

“Balancing academics and golf has been challenging, for sure,” Lyle adds. “But being an athlete at Rollins means you’re part of a community that really supports you. It’s just a great atmosphere. I knew that if I came to school here, I’d get a great education and have a chance of winning a championship. I’ve matured so much—not only as a player, but as a person.”

Editor’s note: As part of our series on the women’s golf team, we’ll be spotlighting the five golfers—Dulman, Leadbetter, Toth, Lellyo and Lyle—who teamed up to win the national title. A full-length profile on Coach Garner will appear in the Fall 2016 issue of Rollins magazine.