State - Ashley Kulka Beaver Dam.JPG

Ashley Kulka, Beaver Dam

Wisconsin.Golf photo/Jim Kelsh

Six of the seven golfers on the UW-Green Bay women’s golf team were in the van early Sunday morning when it left campus -- with coach Lee Albright at the wheel -- for the start of a new era.

Seniors Leah Birch and Emily Grunder, who have seen it all in their four years in the Phoenix program, piled in to begin their final tour of college golf.

Sophomore Alix Larson, the last remaining member of the 2016 recruiting class Reinke inherited, hopped aboard to see how much more improvement is in store for her second year in the program.

And Ashley Kulka, Lori Meyer and Katie Warpinski, three of the four members of what could be the most impactful freshman class in at least five years, were ready to show people what the fuss is all about.

However, the most important golfer in the program might have been the one left at home.

Freshman Leah Hansen won’t make the trip to Batavia, Kentucky, and the Northern Kentucky Invitational, which begins Monday. It is the first event on the UWGB schedule and one that Reinke hopes will serve as a critical turning point for a program that has struggled mightily, finishing last in the Horizon League each of the last two years and three of the last four.

Reinke left her with orders on how to spend the two days the rest of the team is out of town.

“I told her ‘Make it where everybody that’s traveling knows you’d better be ready because while you’re gone playing, I’m going to be working my tail off,’” Reinke said. “And when you get back I’m going to be ready to get in that van, creating that culture of competitiveness. I think it’s healthy. I think competition is healthy to help us get to that next level … as a team.”

Indeed, since adding women’s golf in 2007, UWGB has finished in the top half of the Horizon League just once -- in 2015, when it tied for fourth. It enters the season ranked 250th out of 260 NCAA Division I programs, according to GolfStat.com, but optimism has never been higher.

“Anything is going to be an improvement,” said Reinke, whose team’s 54-hole total of 983 at the Horizon League Championship was its first sub-1,000 score since the season opener. “It’s going to be fun to go to an event and not shoot four digits. I’m very, very excited.”

And why not? Golfers such as Kulka and Meyer should give Reinke cause for excitement.

Kulka, of Beaver Dam, won the 2015 WIAA Division 1 state title and finished third a year ago. Meyer, of Freedom, was a three-time Division 2 state qualifier who placed in the top 10 each year culminating in a runner-up finish as a senior to Racine St. Catherine’s Sarah Busey.

“I know they’re going to be nervous,” Reinke said. “It’s their first (college) tournament.”

Birch and Grunder, on the other hand, couldn’t be more excited, according to Reinke. They have suffered through the leanest years in program history and are eager to do their part in setting a tone for future Phoenix teams and their bid to climb toward the top of the Horizon League heap.

“They’re very excited about it,” Reinke said. “They haven’t been able to have or be involved with team success. … They’re excited, potentially, … from the standpoint that they can say ‘We might go to some tournaments and actually be able to compete.’ They’re playing well, too.”

In the meantime, Reinke knows building a culture comes with a price that, year in and year out, will probably exceed what UWGB -- without a Division I football program -- can afford. That’s why Reinke recently put on a golf fundraiser that drew 81 people and raised $16,300.

“I want to play a certain schedule to attract these kids to come here,” said Reinke, who is also planning a spring training trip to Georgia for the men’s and women’s programs. “As you know, I am huge on Wisconsin golf. Huge. As you can tell, I haven’t looked outside the state. I think there is huge talent right here. I’m more than content to recruit inside the state.

“But all this momentum we’re building … now we’ve got to keep that ball rolling. We can’t just plateau. We don’t have to win, but we do have to finish in the top five, get a couple top fours. I’ve had guys who never got to play their freshman year; those guys didn’t play many events their sophomore year. You guys have the opportunity to play as freshmen, quite a bit.

“Just the experience you’re going to get is going to be invaluable.”