Akers' Ambition Paying Dividends
Mean Green Tee Off Spring Season Monday
DENTON – When head coach Michael Akers made the decision to take over the women’s golf program at North Texas last spring, he had an ambitious goal in mind: shave 100 spots off the team’s national ranking in just one season. To this point, prior to the spring schedule, North Texas is on pace to do just that, having jumped 55 spots with its fall performance, and the Mean Green sit at No. 146 according to GolfStat.
Akers attributes a lot of the immediate success to the buy-in from his team from day one.
“They’ve been very open-minded to structure from the very beginning,” Akers said. “There’s been no pushback at all and that was my biggest fear. I’m really happy the way they’ve embraced change, structure, expectations and work-ethic. They’ve seen, after a semester, the improvement. However, we aren’t settling and we aren’t going to pat ourselves on the back. We are trying to win conference and that’s why we are working every day.”
The culture change has moved quickly from a tumultuous 2015-16 season. After an initial meeting with his new team on his first day in charge, Akers went into full evaluations of his student-athletes and hit the recruiting trail hard. The latter paid off right away, as he quickly inked New Mexico transfer Sol Lee, a golfer he recruited while at Texas State, who was eligible to start competing this fall.
During the evaluation process, Akers looked at how he could institute drills during practice and how he could improve swing techniques to help slice strokes off of everyone’s game. With a 2015-16 team scoring average of 315, Akers noted that there was work to do to make sure that number fell below 300 for the team to be able to compete at a high level during the 2016-17 campaign.
Akers also added a key component to the program in former professional golfer Kendra Little as assistant coach. A former member of the highly successful Oregon program, Little brought with her high-level playing experience, providing instant credibility with the team.
“I was looking for someone to compliment me and my skill set,” Akers said of bringing Little aboard. “She’s been absolutely the perfect person to do that with her playing background and relatability to the girls. The two of us blend really well and it has allowed her to focus on player development. She has done a great job with that and we’ve really formed a great team.”
Little has become a strong influence on several members of the team in a short time; whether that be through on-course improvement or help away from the course in areas of nutrition, or how to manage classwork and competition more effectively.
“We all know that everything we are going through, she has already been through,” Lee said of Little. “We look up to her a lot for guidance, and she’s very easy to talk to. Her presence is very important to this team, and, even though she joined the program later into the fall, she really feels like a part of the Mean Green family and we are so comfortable with her.”
As the team began tournament play this past fall, it only took four rounds before a major milestone was achieved. At Little’s first tournament with North Texas, following a lackluster round one at the Johnie Imes Invitational in Columbia, Missouri, the Mean Green bounced back with a record-setting second round. The team set a new program best mark of 5-under par, carding a 283, and finishing with the best second-round score amongst a loaded field.
Senior Eji Kwon, who has dropped her scoring average by three strokes to 74 through the fall, shot a collegiate best 67 in Columbia to lead the way. Lee added the best round of her fall season with a 69 and sophomore Kalli Jennings shot an even-par 72, also her best round of the semester.
“It was mind-boggling,” Akers said. “I’d only ever had one better round coaching, where a team at Texas State shot 9-under, so when we went 5-under, I can’t describe how excited I was and the whole team was. This game is so mental, and you get to the point where you know that if you can do it once, you can do it again. It’s also important from a recruiting standpoint that we can now show that result. For a program that has been around over 30 years, being able to shoot the best round in school history in such a quick manner is extremely exciting.”
There are three components to the team’s training regimen: yoga, the Titleist Performance Institute (a golf-specific health and fitness program that Akers has woven into preparation) and the strength and conditioning program with coach Chris Seroka.
The institution of yoga on each Friday morning was a key addition for the program under Akers’ direction, who believed it would foster more physical flexibility, and, more importantly, enhance the mental aspect of the game by allowing the student-athletes to slow down and really focus their minds to prepare for success.
Since Akers’ arrival, a spirit of competition is present in all areas of the program, which is a change from the past. Every practice concludes with some sort of drill that is highly competitive. Players must qualify for every tournament and every place is earned. This not only drives each golfer to be at their best each day, but it gives everyone a chance to play in tournaments.
“Every day is a new day and things are always fresh,” junior Nyca Khaw said. “We don’t get bored with what we are doing and that motivates me to go out each day and improve.”
Akers feels it is very important to set and achieve goals, to continue that mindset that there is something attainable. Doing that, as well as avoiding monotony during practice by varying drills and keeping things fresh, has led to noticeable improvement in all areas.
Success in the fall has resulted in more confidence throughout the group. As the spring season approaches, there is no settling, only making sure there is constant improvement.
“I don’t think any of us are nervous for a tournament now, we are all ready to go and prove people wrong,” Lee said. “We are always prepared for what we are up against because coach Akers prepares us very well. He chooses a lot of our qualifying courses to be similar to what we are playing in tournaments. Success in practice helps build our confidence because when you do it (in practice), you know you can go out in competition and do it there as well.”
A theme that is present throughout the tight-knit group is the sense that the program is growing and taking advantage of its resources. From the head coach on down, the team is eager to learn new things and are open to new ideas and ways of improving, which leaves a lot of room for growth, both collectively and individually.
Another significant component of the program that is not yet complete, is the new facility at Maridoe Golf Club in Carrollton, which will soon be home base for the North Texas men’s and women’s golf programs. Upon Maridoe’s completion, the team will have its own dedicated practice facility, a place to host tournaments that will attract the best teams from around the country, and yet another tool at Akers’ disposal.
“Every day that I’m out there, I cannot believe what we have,” Akers said of Maridoe. “I know what many of the programs across the country have, and we are up there with the elite in terms of what we have to work with.”
The Mean Green have seen drastic improvement across the board through Akers’ first four tournaments in the fall, with the spring-opening Texas State Invitational tournament teeing off Monday, Feb. 13, in New Braunfels, Texas, the Mean Green look to continue their climb in the rankings.
“When we broke the school record, it showed us that each individual on our team has the potential to play and compete at a high level of division one golf,” Khaw said. “Why not us? Why can’t we take home the trophy?”