“I would love to be at Riverside forever. Riverside is my home. There’s a lot of change happening here at UCR and I’m very excited to be a part of it.”
Early Friday morning, Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) member and now UCR’s Women’s Golf Head Coach, Mary Ritchie, sat down with the Highlander to get an inside scoop of the team’s season and discuss her unique coaching pedagogy.
Highlander: How is your first season as Head Coach of the Women’s Golf team been so far?
Ritchie: We’re doing fantastically well. We’ve won two events already this year. In the fall we won our first event, and Brittany Ferraro, who is a senior on our team, won individually that event called the Santa Clara Colby Classic. In the fall we had two fourth-place finishes and basically we’re breaking records this year, we’re breaking scoring records. Most of the players are improving their statistics dramatically.
We’re in the second part of the season now after about a month and a half off, what we call off-season, from the beginning of November till January our practice hours are really restricted. Jan. 5 we came back into season and we’ve already had two events, one of them was the Long Beach State Invitational and the most recent one that we came back from is the Grand Canyon where we finished in first place.
H: Last year the results would vary from sixth to seventh place, but this season they vary from first to third. What do you feel is the reason behind the improvement?
R: Well, we’re very strategic in how we practice. All of the girls have gotten better with their skills. There is a united interest in improving and in just achieving as highly as possible. Last year at the end of the season the team finished ranked 128th in the country and we’ve been as low as 60th so far, so it’s been pretty dramatic.
After last week’s event, surprisingly enough, after winning over 21 teams in the field, our ranking went up to 71st, you know, a bit surprising. And some of that has to do with the strength of the competitors in the field. I think there are about 256 Division I programs, and they’re all playing different schedules so it depends on who is ranking the team.
Upcoming this week we have the Bay Area Intercollegiate and the number-one ranked team in the country will be playing in it, the University of Washington. I thoroughly expect that after this event our ranking will be better, if we can have a decent performance at this particular event then our ranking should go back up. There’s a tremendous amount of talent on this team and a lot of passion and they’re all excited to have a full-time coach.
H: What are some unique techniques that you use to coach your players?
R: Oh, I can’t tell you all my secrets. Kidding! A lot of it is mental game. We focus a lot in the short games meaning from 100 yards: wedges, putting and specialty shots. We’ve done a lot of mental game techniques, some things that influence the mental toughness and their ability to handle pressure and competition. I think that in itself has been a huge component of our success this year and the receptivity of all the players. All of them really want to get better. They’re all very dedicated and when it comes to high performers who expect a lot out of themselves, and I’ll say that my athletes do, you don’t have to push them too hard because they do that for themselves. It’s like the entire team is working really hard and I don’t have to drag them to practice. In fact, it’s hard for them to take a day off. I will give them a day off and I might be giving a private lesson to somebody else and half the team shows up. I’m not conducting a practice for the team but they show up and practice on their own and that makes me really excited because I know they’re working just as hard as I am.
H: From the many offers you might’ve had, what made you decide to choose to coach at UCR?
R: Literally, I did not know that this opportunity was posted. I knew the previous coach, Paul Gilbert, he coached for 12 years and I knew him fairly well and I had met Coach Riehle, who is the director of both men’s and women’s golf, but I did not know that they were looking for a full-time women’s coach until one of my students told me about it. So I thought, you know I haven’t been coaching and teaching full-time in years because I’ve been so busy with the LPGA. I’m very involved with the LPGA teaching both club and professional divisions, and I’ve been traveling a lot so when this came up I thought, well you know let’s see what could happen here.
I live in Riverside so it kind of felt like it was meant to be. I think it’s just such a great fit for me because I am so attached to Riverside and honestly if a position had come up somewhere else where I would be making an hour commute it wouldn’t have even crossed my radar. There is a lot that I do in the world of golf that is really fun and exciting for me and commuting a long way is not one of those options. There are a lot of reasons that made this the right fit for me. The facilities that we use in the area are just top-notch golf courses and I’m fairly connected with the golf professionals in the area so it just felt right.
H: How do you handle stress and manage to do other activities you enjoy such as photography and writing?
R: Excellent time management skills and hardly any sleep. What I’m really fueled by is my excitement for the program and since I started in July, I have never in my life gotten so little sleep. I have never been so ready to go as soon as my eyes open. I’m compelled to do what I do, from managing to social media and planning for the future.
H: How is the recruiting process coming along?
R: Right now it’s the busiest time of the year for me so I can’t really focus time on recruiting. I just don’t have the time for it right now, but I’ve already recruited one player and I might have another one who came in for a visit yesterday right in the heart of all the business. We’re losing two players, two seniors, Savannah Vilaubi and Ferraro next year, and they’re our number one and number two players.
Next year we’re bringing Jakeishya Le who played high school golf and was very successful in her fall season, and I mean extremely successful so I’m expecting pretty good things from her. We got some really good depths, Coach Riehle and Coach Perkins did a good job in recruiting last year so that has made things easier for me to be successful this year.
H: What kind of a program are you looking to build for the women?
R: I’m looking to build a highly ranked program that is recognized. I expect that in the next three years we will contend in regional and hopefully make it to the NCAA championship. There’s a possibility in getting into regional this year, we’re right on the bubble and it would be a first for the women’s golf team ever. It is a bit of a long-range game plan, about a three-year plan, to get inside the top 50 but to go from 128 to right now where we’ve been 60th you can see how dramatic the change is. The jump up into the 50s may take some time but it involves recruiting well and seeing the potential of younger players who are coming up. Right now I have two verbal commitments from two high school juniors. That’s how far back you have to go begin scouting.
You recruit well by having an excellent coaching staff and excellent facilities and results. I just brought on an assistant coach who had an amazing career in the LPGA tour with two wins and she played 16 years on the LPGA tour — her name is Joan Pitcock — she’s starting with us this week actually, and she doesn’t live in Riverside; she lives in Fresno but she will be traveling to all our tournaments with us and supporting my coaching and adding her coaching elements. I think that’s going to put us over the edge so I can’t be any more excited than I am about her and what she’s going to add to our program. The plan is to use all of the tools that I have and all of the resources that I have to make this the best program it can be and just in a very short amount of time we’re starting to see what is possible here.
H: How do you feel about the rest of the season and the Big West Conference?
R: Well, the toughest competition in the Big West is UC Davis and right now they’re ranked 36th in the country. Right now where we fall in the ranking in the Big West is third and we’re going to battle Long Beach State for at least second place, but who knows what can happen between now and the end of April. I think that as our momentum builds toward conference, I think this event is kind of pivotal because it will show the girls in a highly competitive environment where number one in the country out of 200 and something programs is competing. They’ll really get to see where they are in relations to that team. Having a good finish there will build confidence and we’re going to make a run at conference because anything can happen.
I will say this, though, it is being played at the UC Davis’ home golf course so there’s definitely a home advantage happening there but we will have to play our best to win conference. The most important thing to me is getting in regional. Post-season play regional happens right after conference depending where we’re ranked. We’re on the bubble of being a post-season team so that’s really what I’m looking at. There isn’t really one team I’m looking to beat; obviously it would be nice to beat all of the teams at conference. We have beaten all the teams except for Davis. We have never played a tournament with them yet, so this week will be our first time.