Grizzly golf coach stepping down

MISSOULA — Joni Stephens, who led the Montana women’s golf program the last two seasons, will step down from her coaching position at the end of this month. She was hired in August 2013.

For Stephens, who led the Grizzlies to a pair of top-five finishes at the Big Sky Conference championship, the strong pull of family, much of which is located nearly 2,000 miles away in eastern Kentucky, became too much to resist.

Stephens, the mother of three sons, coached at Eastern Kentucky (1998-2010) for 12 years, and her husband, Pat, continues to coach the men’s golf team at EKU, a school located in Richmond. Stephens’ parents live in Richmond, as do two of her three siblings, and two of her grandchildren are in Paintsville.

“There is not a single negative reason I’m leaving Montana,” Stephens said Thursday morning, while failing to hold back tears. “The last two years have been great. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my job and have loved being here. I’m going to miss it.

“But I feel like I need to get closer to home and back to family.”

Stephens was hired in late August 2013, and she arrived in Missoula just days before Montana was set to open its fall schedule in the Grizzly Invitational at the Missoula Country Club.

Perhaps relaxed by their new coach’s Southern accent, made permanent growing up in Louisiana, or put at ease by her teaching-based approach, the Grizzlies shot rounds of 290, 294 and 294 to run away with the tournament and break the program’s previous 54-hole scoring record by 25 strokes.

Team and individual success continued over the next 20 months.

Tara Green won a pair of tournament titles, at the Grizzly Invitational and Rio Verde Invitational in Stephens’ first year, and Barbora Bakova claimed the Sacramento State Invitational in March.

Bakova would conclude the 2014-15 season with a scoring average of 76.12, the best in program history. Green finished her time at Montana with a four-year average of 76.85, the best career mark in team history.

Bakova was a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection this past season. Green and Bakova were voted second-team All-Big Sky in 2013-14, Green and Alexa Schendelman made second team this spring.

Stephens clearly made her top players better, but her coaching also led to improvements throughout the entire roster.

Montana lowered its team scoring average from 314.0, in 2012-13, to 310.7 in Stephens’ first season. Last year that scoring average was slashed to 305.8, and all seven players on UM’s roster finished the season with scoring averages in the 70s.

“I hope I’ve made a difference while I’ve been here,” said Stephens, who guided Montana to second-place finishes at the Rio Verde Invitational her first season and the Bobcat Spring Invitational in her second. “I feel like I’ve helped to move the program forward.

“I feel my players are well-prepared. They know the things they have to work on in order to improve as competitors and reach the goals we’ve set with our program. I believe I’m leaving the program in a good place.”

One lasting reminder of Stephens’ tenure that will be around long after she decamps: the team’s new indoor practice facility on the grounds of the Ranch Club. The 1,500-square-foot structure will have four hitting bays that open to the course’s driving range, plus a putting green and chipping areas.

“I’m proud of the new facility we’re getting ready to open up. It’s going to be a very valuable tool for the program,” said Stephens.

Stephens’ departure means the Griz golf program will be under its fourth coach in six years when Montana opens its fall schedule in September at the Hobble Creek Fall Classic in Springville, Utah.

Joanne Steele led the program for 15 seasons before leaving for the same position at North Florida in the summer of 2011. Emily Milberger, now the coach at Fresno State, spent two seasons at Montana.

“We wish Coach Stephens all the best and thank her for her contributions to the golf program,” said associate director of athletics Greg Sundberg, who oversees Montana’s golf program.

“We have a talented team and brand-new indoor practice facility that’s nearly completed, so Joni is leaving the program in excellent shape.”

The search for Montana’s next golf coach will begin in the coming weeks.

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