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Matt Higgins named University of Montana golf coach

MISSOULA — Matt Higgins, who led the Concordia-St. Paul women’s and men’s golf teams to nine NCAA regional appearances and built his women’s program into a model of student-athlete success, has been hired as Montana’s new women’s golf coach.

Higgins was offered and accepted the job earlier this week. He replaces Joni Stephens, who stepped down from her position in June after two years on the job.

“Matt will be a great addition to our staff,” said UM Director of Athletics Kent Haslam. “I like his head coaching experience, that he’s managed both men and women, and that he’s had success at a school where he had limited resources and still made the most of it. I think he’s going to do a great job.”

Higgins, who was already working at Concordia-St. Paul in computer support and telecommunication services, started the school’s women’s program in 2001-02 as a club team. The Golden Bears started competing at the NCAA Division II level in 2002-03.

Concordia-St. Paul’s men’s program began competing in NCAA Division II in 2004-05.

Higgins’s women’s team made its first NCAA Central Regional appearance in 2009 and advanced to the 12-team Division II national championship in 2009 and ’11. The Golden Bears made it seven consecutive regional appearances last spring. The CSP men’s team made regionals in 2010 and ’12.

“It will be hard to leave. Concordia has been my home for 18 years, 14 of those in athletics,” Higgins said. “We’ve had some success on and off the course, and I’m proud of that. I think I’m leaving the program in pretty good shape.”

He’ll take over a Montana program that now has had three head coaches since Joanne Steele left for North Florida following the 2010-11 season. Emily Milberger and Joni Stephens both spent two years at Montana before moving on.

The Grizzlies won the Big Sky Conference title in 2006 to cap a run when they finished in the top two three times in five years. Since then the program has hovered one step below the league’s top programs, finishing fourth or fifth at the Big Sky championship eight of the last nine years.

“Montana is a program that’s ready to take off,” Higgins said. “The former coaches have done a great job laying the foundation. What I want to do is bring stability. It’s hard for a program to reach its potential when the players have to go through different coaching styles and philosophies.

“There are a lot of good things in place. There is a new indoor facility, the staff is wonderful, and I think the players are ready to go. I think we can make the next jump, so I’m excited to get out there and start working with the team.”

Higgins’s ability to develop both sides — academic and athletic — of his student-athletes will fit in well at Montana, which has posted 20 consecutive semesters with a cumulative department GPA of 3.0 or better. In the spring, Montana’s teams produced a term GPA of 3.14, the best semester on record.

His women’s team had a GPA of 3.78 in 2014-15, the second-highest mark in all of NCAA Divisions I, II and III on this summer’s Women’s Golf Coaches Association academic honor roll. Three times in the last seven years the Golden Bears have had the top GPA in all of Division II.

“Women’s golf has traditionally been one of our top performers academically,” said Haslam. “Matt will recruit great student-athletes, so I have no doubt that will continue. The vision he has for the overall development of the student-athlete is exactly what we were looking for.”

A two-time Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference coach of the year, Higgins served more than five years on the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Committee, part of that time as the national chair.

Higgins was born in Forest Lake, Minn., and raised just north of the Twin Cities. He earned a degree in Christian ministry from the University of Northwestern-St. Paul in 2014.

He’ll take over a young team at Montana, which opens its fall season a month from Friday at the Hobble Creek Classic at Springville, Utah.

Gone from last year’s team are its two lowest scorers. Barbora Bakova, who had a season stroke average of 75.5, transferred to Coastal Carolina. Tara Green, who had a stroke average in 2014-15 of 76.3 and career average of 76.9, best in program history, completed her four years of eligibility.

The team’s top returner is redshirt junior Alexa Schendelman, a second-team All-Big Sky Conference selection last year. Three of the team’s eight players in 2015-16 will be true freshmen.

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