By Jacob Kennedy
WINONA LAKE – In the spring of 2015, the women’s golf program at Grace College didn’t exist. Now, in the spring of 2018, the Grace Women’s Golf team ranks in the top 50 of the NAIA.
After years of campaigning for a women’s golf team, Grace College employee Denny Duncan’s wish was finally granted. Duncan was handed the reins to the women’s golf program in the fall of 2014, with the team starting competition in the fall of 2015.
Duncan, who played golf at Grace from 1976-80, entered this journey as a former elementary school principal with no coaching experience. Duncan believes his time as a principal prepared him for coaching, saying “I was an elementary school principal… How different is that from coaching? I’m coaching teachers and challenging kids to work harder than they think they can work.”
The first problem he faced, like most programs in their inaugural year, was developing a recruiting pitch for a team that didn’t exist. Fortunately for Duncan, Lauren Keiser fell right into his lap.
Keiser, who was a prominent high school distance runner from Ohio, found the school after Grace track coach Jeff Raymond reached out to her. After Keiser told Raymond about her dream to play college golf, Raymond sent her profile to Duncan who was in desperate need of that first signee.
Within a week of learning about Keiser, Duncan went to watch her play in her sectional tournament. This was ultimately the start of a relationship that will forever have a massive impact on the women’s golf program at Grace College.
Regarding Keiser, Duncan remembers thinking, “This kid can be a cornerstone of everything we want to do.”
Keiser, despite having multiple scholarship offers for both golf and running, decided to sign with a school that, at the time, didn’t have a golf team. When asked why she chose Grace College, Keiser didn’t hesitate, “Definitely Denny Duncan,” she said, “because of what coach [Duncan] believed could happen later on.”
Even before competition had begun, Duncan’s drive was unmatched. “He is literally the most passionate person I have ever met in my life,” Keiser said. “He was passionate about an idea.”
Duncan doubled down on his passion for the program, saying, “I lay awake at night thinking about the team and what I can do.”
Duncan’s belief, passion, and commitment were common themes when talking to Keiser. Coaching golf for Duncan is a vehicle that he uses to help develop relationships that will last a lifetime.
The team’s success has stemmed from Duncan’s eagerness to create a family atmosphere. “I’m not recruiting you for four years,” he said, “We want to create experiences that last forever.”
As the team has grown, so has Duncan. Looking back on his first three years of coaching, he said, “I’ve grown so much… the first year I didn’t have a clue.” Their year-by-year results speak for themselves, as the team’s scoring average dropped from 378 in the first year to 348 in the second. This year? They are averaging under 330.
The team recently placed fourth in the Crossroads League Championship, finishing only four strokes out of second place. Grace was the only team with two top five finishers, as Keiser finished third and Sydney Abbott placed fifth. Anna Marshall rounded out this year’s success by being the first Grace women’s golfer to ever be named to the All-Crossroads League team. Additionally, Keiser was named the NCCAA National Golfer of the Week this week for her exploits at the Crossroads League Championships. Her third-place finish in the league finals was the best individual finish in the three-year history of the program.
The atmosphere surrounding the team in year three is much different than it was a couple of years ago. Keiser spoke about the team’s confidence, stating, “We’re going to tournaments expecting ourselves to win.”
The girls won three tournaments in the fall and have already won another one this spring.
As the head coach, Duncan understands the importance of motivating his players to work harder. He often challenges them by saying, “Your job is to get better and my job is to find players better than you that’ll take your job away from you.”
Duncan’s expectations are much different now than they once were, and he isn’t planning on slowing down anytime soon. “I can’t imagine myself not doing it,” he said, “because it is the most fun thing I have ever done.”
Duncan’s belief in an idea has turned into a belief in a program, and he knows what kind of potential this program holds, stating, “I think we can be top 20 in the NAIA.”
From not having a team to having nine first place finishes in three years and multiple individual national qualifiers, this program is everything Duncan has ever wanted and more. Even as the stature of the Grace Women’s Golf program has grown, Duncan has stuck to his roots and aspired to develop a unique family atmosphere within his teams.
A program that once had to convince Lauren Keiser to be their first player has turned into a consistent tournament contender, and Duncan says his recruiting pitch has stayed the same.
“You’re always going to be a part of it, it’s something bigger than all of us, it’s something special. That’s the lemonade we’re selling.”