Lakeland women's golf team | 2021 NACC Champions

From left, Maddie Perkins, Makenzie Suhr, Ali Wilson, Ashley Trapp and Cameron Lee of Lakeland University pose with the 2021 Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference trophy at Meadowbrook CC in Racine. 

What happened Sunday to Ali Wilson and the Lakeland University women's golf team at Meadowbrook Country Club in Racine was still sinking in Monday.

As the Muskies turned their attention to the next leg of their improbable journey, though, looking back made looking ahead all the more exciting.

"I have been waiting my whole life for this moment," Wilson wrote in an email interview with Wisconsin.Golf, when asked to describe what it was like to rally from 25 strokes behind over the final 18 holes of the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference Championship and defeat Marian University in a one-hole playoff for the school's first conference championship and an automatic berth in next week's NCAA Division III Championship in East Lansing, Mich.

Yes, it was a lot to take in.

It all started Friday on Day 1 of the championship after St. Norbert College of De Pere shot 383 and took a two-stroke lead over Aurora (Ill.) University, the two-time defending NACC champion. Lakeland shot 389 and sat quietly in third, six shots off the pace.

Saturday, however, Aurora looked more like the team that had dominated the NACC in winning the conference championship five of the previous six years. The Spartans shot a 375 and, with a 760 total, had opened up a 20-stroke lead on St. Norbert (780), a 25-shot gap on Lakeland (785), which is located near Sheboygan, and a 29-stroke cushion over Marian (789), which is located in Fond du Lac.

In addition, Aurora had the top two golfers in the championship in Kallie Sakamoto and Avary Henry at that point. Sakamoto, who shot a second-round 83, was first at 166, Henry (82) second at 174 and Wilson, the 2019 NACC champion, was third after a 91 left her at 180.

Things were looking grim for the Wisconsin entries in the 54-hole event.

"I never counted us out," Wilson wrote. "I woke up at 5:45 on Sunday morning and was looking at the scores. I knew what kind of situation we were going to be in, and the numbers made it look like we could do it!

"I never imagined Sunday to go down the way it did, but I sure never counted out this team. No one ever should."

Strange things happen in NCAA Division III golf, where the student-athletes — either paying their own way or paying down those costs with academic scholarships — very much approach life in that order.

Aurora, which played its final three events of the spring with only four golfers, came to Meadowbrook for this event — normally played in the fall — without its Nos. 3 and 4 golfers after they were sidelined due to illness the day before the championship, coach Justin Wyeth told Wisconsin.Golf. The Spartans played the first two rounds with senior Autumn Sullivan (109-108), who hadn't played since Aurora's lone fall event in September and spent most of the semester student teaching, knowing she would miss the final round for her graduation ceremony at the school.

Wyeth was forced to substitute with another golfer who also hadn't competed since September. The result was the Spartans were forced to count a 152 on Sunday, resulting in a final-round 433 for a team that came into the weekend averaging a 349.2.

All that did, though, was create an opportunity for the three teams behind them in the standings. And a lot of chaos.

"We knew that things were stacked against us, but what we really knew was that we had not been playing like we were capable of (the first two days)," Lakeland coach Amber Peterson wrote in an email interview with Wisconsin.Golf, mindful that her Muskies had fired a school-record 357 at the UW-Whitewater Spring Invitational at Janesville Riverside GC a week earlier.

"We relaxed on Sunday, fed off one another, and just enjoyed being out there. We weren't pressing at all, and wanted to put our best foot forward so we could be proud of our effort."

It helped that golfers from the same team played together in the same group due to COVID-19 protocols. However, it was also tough to get a read on how the other teams were faring without the aid of live scoring, the information from which Peterson said several players wanted to remain guarded during the round.

"So we didn't say anything," Peterson wrote. "By the time we finished (No.) 18, we knew it was going to be very close between the top four teams."

Early on the back nine, Wilson got the idea that things weren't going well for Aurora.

"When we were on (No.) 13, we had gotten pretty excited at one point," Wilson wrote. "I looked over at Aurora teeing off and they were as quiet as could be. I turned to Coach Amber and said 'They are pretty quiet; let's go do this.'"

The suspense was only building.

St. Norbert had finished ahead of Lakeland and posted a 390 for a 1,170 total. Three players broke 100 for the Knights in Lucca Kenyon (91), Ella O'Connell (97) and Bree Borgen (98), but they ultimately needed one more sub-100 score to have a shot at joining the Lakeland-Marian playoff and counted a 104.

Marian was next. The Sabers posted the number to beat (1,165) with a final-round 376 that included an 87 from Amber Debolt, a 92 from Ashley Graves, a 98 from Lilly Accola and a 99 from Morgan Hernandez.

And then it was Lakeland. The Muskies struggled on the home hole, counting a bogey, a double-bogey and two triple-bogeys on the 411-yard, par-4 to finish off a 380 that matched Marian's three-day total of 1,165. 

"Once I walked off (No.) 18, my mom intercepted me and whispered to me 'You were up by 8 (shots) a little bit ago ... you have a chance,'" Wilson wrote. "That is when it hit me the hardest. It was a sigh of relief when we saw the scores come in and I knew the team was ready to go win the title."

The Muskies held a 17-24 edge over Marian on the 388-yard first hole used for the playoff when they played it during regulation. They won the showdown in the playoff by a 21-22 margin over the Sabers.

"I was so speechless," Wilson wrote, when asked how she reacted when the final scores were announced. "I threw my putter up in the air and just sat down on the ground. I had been waiting for that moment since I became a Muskie.

"When I ran over to Coach Amber to hug her, I think we both knew what the moment meant. It has been a culmination of the last six years of my life."

For Wilson, who is finishing work at Lakeland on her Master's of Science in Leadership and Organizational Development, that journey began April 18, 2015, while she was standing on deck during a high school softball game for Lincoln (Ill.) Community High School. She was struck by a line-drive and fell back and hit the back of her head as she went to the ground.

"I went to the ER following the game and was told it was just a concussion and I would be out 10 days," Wilson wrote. "Well, 10 days later I was in the hospital. I could not walk or talk without a leg gait on my right side or a stutter when I spoke. I was in and out of hospitals, which ultimately took my family and I to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn."

She was told she had a "traumatic brain injury." The road back to normal has been full of twists and turns, but her time in the small, rural setting of Lakeland University, surrounded by a team that cares for her, has made it all worthwhile.

"I golfed in a golf cart through high school," Wilson continued. "We did not even know if I would leave home to go to college, but things slowly got better. Coach Amber had been so understanding with my situation and really Lakeland was home.

"I grew up surrounded by corn fields, so going to Lakeland just was right for me. I never would regret my Lakeland decision and that’s why I’m continuing my education at Lakeland so I can come back in the fall and golf while earning my MS-LOD."

After the ride she's been on the last few days, why stop now? 

More from this Section