Peggy Gierhart 2018 trophy

Madison Edgewood’s Peggy Gierhart is all smiles as she accepts the 2018 state championship trophy, one of 13 won by the Crusaders coach.

For someone whose name will forever be attached to 13 of the record 15 WIAA state girls golf championships that Madison Edgewood has won, it meant more to Peggy Gierhart than her current Crusaders will ever know to get them to University Ridge Golf Course in Madison next week for the school's 24th state appearance.

It wasn't so much to have a shot at winning what would be an unlikely state title as to have the platform to tell the world that this is why she has spent the last 20 years coaching high school golf.

It was for moments like the ones she witnessed on the back nine at Trappers Turn Golf Course this week at the WIAA Division 2 Wisconsin Dells sectional. It was for moments when inexperienced teams not expected to reach great heights put it all together at just the right time and do what it takes to get there. It was for moments when getting somewhere so familiar requires an effort so much different than all those years when her teams made it look so easy.

WIAA's winningest state championship coaches

Titles Coach School Sport Years
20 J. Cary Bachman Glendale Nicolet Boys tennis 1957-'96
17 Lewie Benitz Wisconsin Rapids Wrestling 1974-2007
16 Charles Kahle Milwaukee Riverside Boys cross country 1913-'36
13 J. Cary Bachman Glendale Nicolet Girls tennis 1976-'96
13 Tom Hargraves Madison West Boys swimming 1964-'93
13 Peggy Gierhart Madison Edgewood Girls golf 2003-present
12 David Frank Milwaukee Marquette Boys tennis 2006-present
12 C.A. Wangerin Whitefish Bay Boys track 1937-'52
11 Keith Milkowski Waupun Girls volleyball 1993-2008
11 Bob Haffele Randolph Boys basketball 1996-2013
11 John Burke Catholic Memorial (Waukesha) Girls soccer 2004-'19
11 Charles Kahle Milwaukee East Boys track 1915-'37
10 Steve Lawrence Milwaukee Marquette Boys soccer 2008-present
10 Mary Liniewski Whitefish Bay Gymnastics 2001-present
10 Glen Funk Kohler Boys track 1947-'70
9 Jeff Pustina Cuba City Girls basketball 1991-2014
9 Peter Colisimo Shorewood Boys swimming 1932-'49
8 Tom Drohner Stevens Point Softball 2000-'16

"Can you believe we did that?!" Gierhart asked rhetorically and excitedly Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Edgewood — in fourth place at the turn, four strokes out of second place — rallied past Lakeside Lutheran and Jefferson to finish as the runner-up to Arcadia/Independence, four strokes ahead of third-place Lakeside, and earn the second of two berths in the WIAA state tournament Monday and Tuesday.

"I'm sorry, but that is No. 1 — and you can quote me — the best nine holes of golf I have ever experienced as a coach. That was the best for me, in 20 years. My No. 5 golfer (sophomore Madeline Brandrup) shoots 102? Are you kidding me? ... It was incredible what she did. And her family was all there. It was just so cool. I mean her lowest (before that) was 114 so 12 shots lower."

That was just the start of something special for the Crusaders, who could find the four-shot cushion that propelled them to University Ridge up and down the lineup.

No. 3 golfer Jacklyn Thao came in with a 92 that would hold up as the low score on the team. No. 1 golfer Sarah Nakada bounced back from a 52 on the front nine with a 43 on the back. No. 2 golfer Allyssa Thao played well enough to give Edgewood a fourth counting score (103) that would be enough to keep the Crusaders ahead of Lakeside in the scramble for a spot in the six-team Division 2 field at University Ridge.

Gierhart will call it a coaching career Tuesday after the final putt drops on the 50th WIAA state championship. The most successful high school golf coach in state history first told Wisconsin.Golf of her plans to retire Sept. 17, but didn't know when she would tell her team.

That time came late Wednesday afternoon. Gierhart gathered the five state-bound golfers and the three other girls who comprised the Crusaders' junior-varsity team and let them know she would complete two decades as a coach at Edgewood at the state tournament.

"I think they were surprised," said Gierhart, 53, who told Crusaders athletic director Chris Zwettler that she wanted to "graduate" from her coaching duties at the school as her youngest son, Ryan, prepares to graduate from Edgewood in the spring. "I felt it was the right thing. My parents have both passed away and I feel like life is short and I want to pursue all avenues. I've done this and it's been awesome.

"I have a couple health problems, nagging ones, and I want to focus on myself. I don't really know what (the reason) is, but I just feel like this is the time to stop, even though I loved every bit of it."

Success came early, often

Success followed the former Peggy Kelly from her days as a junior golfer to her college career at Pepperdine to her decorated amateur career in which she was a two-time WSGA women's player of the year in 1990 and 2005 around a brief stint as a playing and teaching professional.

And it certainly didn't let up after she took over the Edgewood program in 2003 from Mark Rechlicz, the longtime head professional at Yahara Hills GC in Madison who coached the Crusaders to their first two state championships in the final two years of single-division play in the WIAA tournament series.

Gierhart's teams won the first seven WIAA Division 2 state championships before The Prairie School (Racine) ended Edgewood's streak of state championships at nine in 2010 when the Hawks won by a single stroke. The Crusaders would win four state titles in a row starting in 2011 and later won two more in 2018 and '19 with a pair of runner-up state finishes in 2015 and '17 sandwiched in between.

Looking back, Gierhart said she did not expect to be this successful as a high school coach, but she did expect to coach this long. Her early motivation was to have the opportunity to coach her only daughter, Reilly, but that opportunity never materialized after she chose high school tennis over high school golf, leaving Gierhart to lead a generation of golfers who she tried to treat as if they were her own daughters.

"The success is one thing," said Gierhart, whose teams also won the first 12 Badger Conference Championships (and 14 overall) after the league first recognized the sport in 2001. "Of course, with high school golf, if you are only going to focus on winning, you'd coach college. I love the relationships I've built with JV, varsity. Of course, it's fun to win — like, duh! — but I have relationships to this day on JV that are really special to me."

Relationship-building was among the reasons Gierhart and longtime assistant Betsy Zadra — now the boys varsity and girls assistant coach at Waunakee — started the "Crusade Fore A Cure" at Maple Bluff CC in Madison. Teams in the 11th annual tournament this fall combined to raise more than $27,000 in 2021, pushing the event's total charitable donations to the UW Carbone Cancer Center to just shy of $150,000.

Gierhart said she has also enjoyed building relationships with other coaches around the state. 

"I've always said from the beginning — well, maybe not the beginning because I was young — it's the learning as you coach (that produces success)," Gierhart said. "You have to learn from your players and other coaches. I think I'm way more open to that now.

"My style is different now. I still have the competitive drive, obviously, but it totally depends on the team. I was a really competitive player and if I have a really competitive team, I'm going to bust their chops to be like 'Dude, you have to be at the range all the time.'"

'Sky's the limit' at U-Ridge

This year's squad is not one of those teams, an observation that Gierhart has shared as she has taken great delight instead in seeing the Crusaders knock off smaller, individual goals virtually every week.

"It's not that they're not competitive, it's just different" Gierhart said. "I have to say '(Practicing) 40 minutes is awesome; let's do this on a Saturday.' To understand them, (Marquette men's coach) Steve Bailey has that nailed. Obviously, college level is totally different, but (the key) is to know your person and to understand how you're going to respond or you're not going to get anywhere in high school."

That's why Gierhart is sending her team into action at University Ridge next week with three simple instructions: Trust your ability, have fun and see what happens.

Prescott is a heavy favorite to repeat as WIAA Division 2 state champion after becoming the first public school to win a small-schools state title a year ago at Blackwolf Run in Kohler. Edgewood comes into the state tournament on the heels of having shot the highest qualifying score among the six state-bound teams at the sectional, but the Crusaders have not finished lower than third at state since their sixth-place showing in a single-division format in 1999.

"My team is so excited about getting there," said Gierhart, who has one senior, one junior and three sophomores in her top five. "It was so much fun seeing that excitement (at the sectional). We have no expectations, really. We want to try to be competitive with the field; it's a very competitive D-2 field.

"We'll do what we can with the youth that we have, but we're going to enjoy the ride and we're happy to be there. ... It's really big for us. It again stresses the idea of small goals. I don't care if they look at Twitter and see all these other schools shooting whatever.

"For them, this kind of puts it altogether for me on coaching. This goal was really high for them and they did it. I hope they go through their life and remember they qualified for state. That was a big deal for them."

As the final hours of her coaching career wind down, it's a big deal for Gierhart, too.

History will show the work her past teams did there over the last 20 years made her one of the most accomplished coaches in WIAA history. This year, however, Gierhart can't help but think getting to University Ridge is every bit as rewarding as any of the state titles those teams won.

"It absolutely is," she said. "It might be the most (rewarding). ... People will say 'Yeah, yeah; she just wants to win' and that's not true. I wouldn't be coaching high golf if that were true. My favorite part of coaching is watching the little goals (be accomplished). 

"This one is amazing to me — that we made it to state when Golf Coaches Association (of Wisconsin) had us ranked 10th. ... After what happened at regionals and sectionals? The sky's the limit. Like, why couldn't we get to top three?"

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