Special First Year For Hester

Special First Year For Hester

Note: The following appears in the June issue of Orange: The Experience. For full access to all of the publication’s content, join IPTAY today by calling 864-656-2115.

One of the best feelings in sport is accomplishing something significant for the first time. I have been fortunate to experience significant firsts with many Clemson programs over the years.

For me, it dates to March 1980, when Bill Foster not only took Clemson to its first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight with three tournament victories. At that time, the Tigers were winning basketball games out in the middle of the Mountain time zone. But in the 37 years since, we have seen what a significant accomplishment that was.

A year later, a Clemson football team that had not received a single poll point in the AP or UPI preseason polls won the national title for the first time with a 22-15 win over Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. That program had a significant second national title this year, but Dabo Swinney’s program has had a bunch of firsts in the last couple of years.

I was in Seattle, Wash., in 1984 when Dr. I.M. Ibrahim’s men’s soccer program won its first NCAA championship with a 2-1 win over perennial power Indiana thanks to a thrilling goal by John Lee with just 1:42 left. Ibrahim had taken Clemson to many Final Fours, including two championship games, before finally winning it all.

I was in Stillwater, Okla., for Clemson’s first national championship in golf in 2003. The Tigers had finished in the top 10 in the nation six consecutive years, but they never won the title until that victory by two shots on Oklahoma State’s home course.

While Clemson’s national championship in football will not be topped as far as an athletic year highlight, I did witness a significant first for a program in the spring.

On May 10, 2017, the Clemson women’s golf program, in just its fourth year of existence, finished fifth at the NCAA Regional in Athens, Ga., to qualify for the NCAA National Tournament for the first time.

Granted, it was not a tournament championship, but do not tell the ladies on the team and head coach Kelley Hester it was just another fifth-place finish.

It was the culmination of a successful first year for Hester as leader of the program after taking over the previous summer under difficult circumstances. Leaving a successful Furman program she had brought back to life with consecutive SoCon titles and the program’s first top-20 final national ranking was a difficult decision.

I know first-hand…there are a lot of good people at Furman.

Hester guided the Tigers to their first tournament title in February, the UCF Challenge, then took the team to a fifth-place finish at the ACC Tournament, the program’s best finish. Clemson was the talk of the tournament held at Pawley’s Island with a second-place standing entering the final round.

Then it was on to the regional at Athens, a place that had played a big part in Hester’s golf maturity. She was an all-conference player for the Bulldogs, then coached the program to five NCAA Tournaments, including two top-15 finishes.

So, when the Tigers finished fifth in Athens to qualify for the national tournament for the first time, there was a sense of accomplishment for Hester and her players, who showered Hester with water after the final results were determined.

“We wanted to get to the national tournament for coach Hester, but her knowledge of the course might have been the biggest factor,” said First-Team All-ACC sophomore Alice Hewson.

After teams clinch their way to the national tournament, there is a presentation by a member of the NCAA committee who extends the official invitation to the national tournament. Then the teams have a group picture.

This is a special team picture, special for the young ladies who didn’t even make the NCAA regional two years ago, special for Hester, who beat her alma mater on the course she played as a Bulldog.

And special for the Clemson program, because it was a significant first.