Above photo of Sydney McConnell courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON-Sydney McConnell entered the final 18 holes of the 2021 ASC Tournament tied for sixth place. The margin between her score of 77 in the opening round and the current first-place leader was a mere six strokes. But that was quite a bit of ground to make up within a field as tight as this one. As the second day of the tournament progressed however, McConnell slowly began gaining ground. It ended as one of the best days of her collegiate career.
The Tyler, Texas native is only a sophomore. And at that, only in her first year of collegiate eligibility. But she has done a lot of winning, going all the way back to her debut as a Crusader at the ASC Preview in September of 2021. Over that two-day span, McConnell was outstanding following up a 78 with a 75 in the second round to win individual medalist honors. It turned out it was only the beginning.
“Winning there in the fall gave me all the confidence I needed in the spring,” McConnell said recently.
Six months later on the same course, McConnell again rose to the occasion, this time in the conference championship. Though a true freshman, she played with the confidence of a senior, no small feat considering the way it played out.
“I went into it, and my goal was honestly not to win,” McConnell recalls. “My goal was to be top 3, or top 5, and I figured I’d be happy with that. But I knew if I played my best golf I had a pretty good chance at winning.
“I went out there the first round and played mediocre golf, but once it got to the second round and was coming down the stretch, I was like, ‘This could actually happen.’ I turned it on from there. I really like that pressure, feeling like I have to do something.”
Part of that pressure was also because her team was in the fight throughout day two, eventually finishing second out of the ASC’s seven teams competing. The Cru moved up two spots on the final day, as McConnell shot a 74, which earned her the conference title, by a single stroke.
“I had been [in situations like that before], but it was different,” she says, noting that she finished before UT-Dallas’ Lindy Patterson, who was neck-and-neck with McConnell through the back nine. “The conference championship is what you hear Coach talk about, that is what you hear people talking about wanting to win so badly.
“I was excited and I was hitting the ball well. There were no nerves. I know I only won by one shot, but I was not nervous one single time. We thought I was going to have to play a playoff, because we didn’t know what Lindy was doing, so we kept my clubs out and I was so ready. Of course, I’m glad I didn’t have to do that. The pressure was intense.”
The narrow victory sent McConnell packing her bags for the NCAA Tournament, played three weeks later in Lansing, Michigan. While held in May, the temperatures were below freezing early in the mornings, with snow on the ground at various points. It was not the traditional May weather McConnell grew up playing in as a native Texan.
“It would be snowing in the morning and I’d tee off at 3 p.m., which never happens in Texas. It was an adjustment for sure. This year it’s in Houston. So hopefully I’ll make it back and get to play in more familiar weather.”
But the weather was the less intimidating factor McConnell faced. Rather, it was the feeling of being one of just 20 individual competitors there, as UMHB did not receive an at-large bid to the tournament. McConnell’s ASC title helped her earn an individual bid to nationals, and her small entourage included only UMHB head coach Jackie Ralston and a trainer. And she was one of only a few true freshmen in that position.
“I had never been to nationals before, so there was a lot going through my head. And it was dominated by Covid, so my parents had traveled to watch me play, but I couldn’t see them unless I was on the course. I had never played a tournament that was that isolated.”
She performed well, all things considered, shooting a 247 through 54 holes for the tournament, as just the third UMHB women’s golfer in program history to qualify as an individual. Her success did not go unnoticed. McConnell earned spots on the WGCA All-Region Team, the ASC All-Academic Team, and ASC All-Conference Team. Throw in the fact that she was voted ASC Freshman of the Year and ASC Golfer of the Year, as well as a WGCA All-American Scholar, and the case could be made that McConnell had the strongest year of a true freshman in ASC women’s golf history.
“I definitely strolled into the first tournament of the fall with my head held very high,” McConnell said of the impact of her strong freshman year. “It’s shown me parts of my game that I didn’t know I was so confident in before. And it’s kind of changed my game. My stroke average has dropped from last semester considerably. It’s dropped every semester I’ve been here.”
She feels right at home in Belton, and her rapid progress shows no signs of slowing down. She has won three individual tournament titles in this season alone, with the homestretch of the season quickly approaching. UMHB hosts the Lady Crusader Spring Invitational in Temple April 11-12, before the ASC Tournament takes place in Gladewater, Texas two weeks later.
“Sydney is such a competitor that possesses such confidence in herself,” UMHB women’s golf coach Jackie Ralston said. “Her attitude carries over to other teammates as well. She is also our team captain this year and has taken so many players under her wing to help them stay connected in team unity.”