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Women's golf tees it up for Niagara University Inaugural season has players aiming for plenty of firsts

There will be a lot of milestones set this season by members of the Niagara University women's golf team.

That's one of the perks of being an NU program. The record book isn't exactly lengthy.

There are other benefits, of course, like being answers to trivia questions that contain the word "first," but the biggest perk to being a trailblazer isn't being the first golfer to card a birdie or be the one to shoot a team-best round -- although those are some mighty fine accomplishments.

"It's really an honor to come here and play because not many people get the opportunity to come out and just join a Division I golf team starting their first year," said freshman Katie Hamilton, who carded the first birdie in Purple Eagles history in the team's Sept. 12 debut.

"You get to be part of a whole new sport at a school that's been around for a long time," she said. "Coming up here and joining a team with all new players that hadn't played up here either, we were all experiencing [everything] for the first time, I thought that would be a neat experience."

Niagara experienced defeat in its first match, losing to defending Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Siena, 342-394, in a contest played in the Syracuse suburb of Jamesville. While it sure would have been something to get that first "W" on the first try, taking the historic walk along the fairways at Lafayette Hills Golf Club proved to be a thrilling experience to the team's seven golfers, especially freshman Brittany Siechen. The East Syracuse native made her collegiate debut on her home course.

"It's fun," said Siechen, a former two-time Section III (Syracuse-area) scholastic champion whose score of 85 led Niagara. "[Being part of this] adds to the history of the whole school, and it's really cool to be a part of it because for years they'll be, like, when our team is going to get really good, when we talk about it, we're going to be, 'We started that.' We were on the first team, and it'll be really cool."

NU played on a 6,300-yard hilly course -- which is nothing like its home course -- Niagara Falls Country Club, which is flat and plays shorter. But it served as a nice tune-up for the team's first major tournament Sept. 28, the Youngstown State Invitational.

"The goal right now is to get everyone a couple of strokes better every time and just get out [on the course] a lot and get us noticed as a school that has a women's golf team," Siechen said.

There are more than 225 Division I women's golf programs, but until this season there had been just two (Siena and Fairfield) in the MAAC. In addition to Niagara, Loyola (Md.) has added a team. Hartford, Albany and Boston University have joined as associate members.

Niagara coach Bob O'Malley said the program has five partial scholarships to offer recruits. He also said there was a need to add another women's sport at the college to make sure the institution was in compliance with Title IX.

Title IX requires gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding. At Niagara, there are more women's (10) than men's (eight) sports teams because there are more females enrolled in the school. The ratio of female student athletes to male student athletes must be within percentage points of the ratio of females to males enrolled in school.

"From the perspective of the administration, adding programs helps develop the university's mission," O'Malley said.

Members of the inaugural Purple Eagles team include Hamilton, Siechen, former Section VI champion Ona Peck (Jamestown), Megan Brusso (Lancaster), Sarah Hanley (Sacred Heart), Laynie Stilman and Lindsey Fronk. Stilman, a senior, plays softball for Niagara and helped the program reach last year's MAAC final.

Most Division I programs are either in the Southern or Western parts of the United States, including defending national champion Arizona State, which has a history of churnning out players that reach the LPGA Tour. New York State has nine Division I women's programs, with Niagara being the only one west of Albany. NU is recruiting against Siena, Albany and Ohio schools within a three-hour driving distance.

That means Niagara could become a destination for talented golfers who don't want to travel too far from home. Lewiston's Cassie Stein, a sophomore at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, is a member of Niagara Falls Country Club. Bridget Carr, who graduated from Nardin Academy in Buffalo, plays for Siena.

"It's exciting. I think it's great for the community and women's golf," NFCC pro John Boss said. "I think being the only [Division I] program [in the area], there's just more opportunity to keep local girls [close to home]. I think it'll be a great opportunity for junior golf in the area."

Niagara provided Hamilton an opportunity of lifetime and a milestone that won't ever be deleted from the program's history book.

"If I were at any other school," she said, "it wouldn't have been the first birdie in program history."


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