Building a new identity is one of the more challenging things in life. Melissa Luellen knows this only too well.
Don’t recognize the name? Well, perhaps you remember her better as Melissa McNamara, the former LPGA player who left the University of Tulsa a little over a year ago to coach the Arizona State women’s golf team.
"I’m trying to drop the McNamara, but it hasn’t been easy,’’ Luellen said. "People don’t recognize me, so I usually have to say Melissa McNamara-Luellen as a backup. It’s just this thing we women have to go through at times.’’
Actually, Luellen is dealing with a lot more than a new name these days. Last week, her father went through a major heart operation, which sent Luellen rushing back to Tulsa, Okla. And this past summer, she became a stepmom, learning the ropes with two children. If that wasn’t enough, she and her new hubby took up horseback riding as a hobby. (Who said staying in the saddle was easy?).
Her roughest ride, however, came with the Sun Devils last season.
"I preach to my players the theme of putting balance in their lives,’’ she said. "And I’m finding that I have to practice what I preach.’’
Patience, however, might be Luellen’s biggest strength. She is at the helm of a young team that is ranked no better than 19th or 29th (depending on the publication) in preseason polls. The brutal truth is, there is not one player on her team, at least at this moment, who will one day play on the LPGA.
Normally, this would have a coach searching frantically for a good excuse, especially at a onetime powerhouse, which the ASU women certainly were during the 1990s under the legendary Linda Vollstedt. Not Luellen, who seems to gain momentum from the struggle, which will continue through 2003-04.
"I’m learning so much more about being a coach than if I walked in on a program that had five great players,’’ she said. "Seriously, I don’t know if I’ll ever have a tougher year than last season.
"At the same time, there’s never a dull moment, and that’s pretty cool.’’
The never-ending journey continues today with three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior teeing it up in the Dick McGuire Invitational in Albuquerque, N.M. Unfortunately, the team was not invited to the NCAA Preview in two weeks at Grand National Lakes in Auburn, Ala., the result of tumbling to 18th at last year’s NCAAs.
"We’re young and we’re inexperienced,’’ she said of her five players who are making the trip to New Mexico, which include (in order) freshman Tiffany Tavee, the 2002 state high school champ from Dobson; Alissa Kuczka, a sophomore from Phoenix Xavier; Danelle Perata, a redshirt freshman from California; Jamie Michaud, a junior transfer from the University of Washington; and Charmaine Erasmus, a freshman from Florida with South African roots.
What’s somewhat surprising is that two of ASU’s better players from last season, juniors Josefin Gustafsson and former Gilbert High School standout Erin Tone, didn’t make the team. At least for this tournament.
"Erin didn’t play well in qualifying, and it wasn’t even close,’’ Luellen said. "But, obviously, she’s one of our best players, and I would not be surprised if she’s in the lineup next time.
"Josefin didn’t play up to her potential, either. She was the victim of a four-shot penalty, when she teed it up from the wrong tee — two shots — and then proceeded to hit her teammate’s ball, which cost her another two shots.
"At the same time, I think our lineup could very easily change for each tournament. All 12 girls might end up playing before the season is over. And while we don’t have a star, they are battlers, and that’s encouraging.’’
The real turning point comes Nov. 12, when McNamara will announce the signing of one to three players, which basically will be her first recruiting class. Last year, she came in too late to get the kind of players she needs to right the ship. Always a realist, Luellen knows that it probably will take two recruiting classes before she can do what she did at Tulsa, where her teams ranked among the top three in the country.
"This year, my goal is to just get us to the national championship. That would be a great season,’’ she said. "It’s not the legacy of ASU women’s golf, but you take it one year at a time.’’
A tried and true way, it would seem, to make a new name.