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Freshman Stephanie Miller quickly finds success and enjoyment in collegiate play


Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

There have only been three competitions for the Illinois women’s golf team this season. In just her third collegiate tournament, Stephanie Miller was able to pull off a first-place finish.

The freshman defeated 72 other golfers this past weekend at the Diane Thomason Invitational in Iowa City, Iowa. At the end of the first day of play, the Elgin, Ill., native led the individual competition by 3 strokes. In the end, she won by 10 strokes with a 3-under-par 213. Miller’s outright win was the first by an Illinois freshman since Becky Biehl won the 1992 Big Ten Championship. Although there is not much to refer to, she credits her success to the collegiate experience she has gained.

“I think the previous two tournaments kind of prepared me for it,” she said. “It’s kind of sticking your feet in the water for college experience.”

Head coach Renee Slone said what made more of an impact was the Minnesota Invitational. At the event, Miller placed second individually, jumping 13 spots from her first competition.

“I think she learned a lot from Minnesota, having been in that position, and seeing how she reacted, and realizing what approach she needs to take to be successful,” Slone said Sunday. “And I think she learned from that and applied it today. It served her very well, having been in that experience previously. And the gratifying thing was that she actually learned from it and used it to her advantage.”

After winning in Iowa, Miller discovered that, as a freshman at Illinois, Slone also won her third tournament. In a way, she’s following in her coach’s footsteps, and in that pursuit, the two have developed a strong relationship.

“We spent a lot of time together during the rounds, so our bond has gotten a lot closer,” Miller said. “I really enjoy having her out there. I’ve never really been able to talk to my actual golf coach when I was playing, and having her there to talk to is different in a way. And it’s not like a caddy because she’s not giving me advice. She’s just encouraging me and keeping a positive attitude, which really helps me in a lot of ways.”

This isn’t the only bond Miller cherishes, though. Despite the short amount of time she has known her teammates, Miller has been able to truly enjoy their company while having them be a positive aspect of her golf game.

“We all have the same funny, goofy personality,” Miller said. “And we all like to have fun. We all have common interests. Like our big thing is eating on the team. It’s a lot of eating, and we talk about food and just bonding over that.”

Miller was more excited about the team’s first-place finish than her own due in part to that bond with her teammates, which is something she hasn’t always had.

“Anything we do as a team is much more enjoyable than doing it by yourself,” she said. “I know that because at Stevenson (High School), it was me, and then the other girls were not as interested in golf as I was. And so they wouldn’t put in as much effort like I would, and I would always be alone at the top or going to state — I went to state four years without a team — and it’s so nice to have girls that have the same interest and same drive as I do.”

Even though Miller is just now being able to share her passion of golf with her team, it’s something that she has in common with both her 77-year-old grandmother and her dad. Miller’s grandmother still continues to play the game and also loves to come watch her granddaughter play; however, her father, a former track student-athlete at Kansas, is her inspiration.

“He knows everything I’m going through right now, between the workouts and practice and competing,” Miller said. “He knows how to push me in the right way but not too much to where it’s an overwhelming, protective, living-through-your-child kind of thing. And he knows so much about golf. It’s nice to have a parent that is so into the same thing that you are, so it really helps.”

Miller’s success comes as a breath of fresh air to a team that consistently finished toward the bottom in tournaments last season. The chance to help turn a program around attracted Miller to Illinois. Miller committed to play as an Illini at the end of her junior year in high school. But golf isn’t just a game she excels in. Even after years of playing the game, Miller is still able to see it as a hobby, not just a competition.

“I just think it’s so much fun,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a round where I was too focused and not enjoying myself when I was playing. I can play with anybody, of any age really. That’s my favorite part about the game is that you can play all the way up until my grandma’s age even, which is 77, and even after that. I knew a lady who was 92, and she’s still playing. It’s a lifelong game, and you can travel anywhere for it.”

Although she’s having fun playing golf, Miller still makes sure to keep her determination at a high level because as Miller put it, “golf is that sport that can bring you down really fast because you can’t be perfect at it.”

Even so, golf is the one sport that has provided Miller success, a competitive outlet, delight and an interest that allows for special relationships.

Ashley can be reached at wijangc2@dailyillini.com and @wijangco12.

 

 

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