Interim coach – and former pro soccer player – leads Lipscomb women into first NCAA regional

Interim coach – and former pro soccer player – leads Lipscomb women into first NCAA regional
Please Share

It had been less than three weeks since Shannon O’Brien was named Lipscomb’s interim head women’s golf coach, and there O’Brien was, at her first tournament in her new role, looking for her cell phone.

O’Brien had just finished shuttling her players from the range at True Blue Golf Club in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, to the starting tee across the street at Caledonia Golf Club, the host course for the women’s portion of the Golfweek Fall Challenge. That’s when she realized she had left her phone on the cart’s cooler. But as she turned around to check if the phone was still there (it wasn’t), her foot still on the pedal, O’Brien was unaware that another coach’s cart was slowing down ahead of her.


“I knocked her like a bumper car,” O’Brien said.

After the collision, a mortified O’Brien immediately sprung from her cart to apologize and make sure the other coach had not been hurt. The coach was uninjured, but her hat had been knocked off and soda was dripping from her face.

Talk about an icebreaker.

O’Brien scrambled for a towel, but she didn’t have one. She did find wet wipes in her bag, and she rushed to clean up the coach and the coach’s cart as best she could.

“And I’m thinking this is my first and last moment as a golf coach,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien understands that her energy, whether positive or negative, can influence that of her players, and in her head coaching debut, she wanted to convey calmness. Now, she had wrecked that goal. Or so she thought. Instead, the coach assured her everything was alright, and she told O’Brien to not be embarrassed about saying hello the rest of the day and beyond.

In awe of the coach’s grace, O’Brien gave her a hug. And that next day, O’Brien surprised the coach with a fresh six-pack of Diet Coke.

“She could’ve been mean toward me, and she chose not to be,” O’Brien explained. “That was such a model for me in that moment. I’m like, I want to exude that kind of kindness toward all coaches and all people, and what a gift that she gave to me. She doesn’t realize how pivotal that was for me. … Had it gone the other way, I don’t know what my disposition would’ve been for the rest of the team that day, let alone that tournament, let alone this season.”

The impact of that crash course – literally – was historic. In O’Brien’s first season at the helm, the Bison have set records, not only winning five times but also capturing the program’s maiden conference title and first NCAA regional berth.

Lipscomb, as a No. 11 seed, will compete May 8-10 at the 12-team NCAA regional in Westfield, Indiana.

“This season has been incredibly rewarding for so many reasons, even outside of winning,” O’Brien said. “I consider it such a privilege just to walk with these girls. Their diligence, their commitment, the trust that they’ve given me, their grit and resiliency, it’s really blown me away. And it’s been special to witness the story that’s being written.”

That story began Aug. 23, 2022, when Lipscomb’s previous head coach, Jesse Lawley, accepted the head coaching job at her alma mater, UAB. With the fall season just weeks from starting, the school gave the keys to O’Brien, who had only been the team’s assistant coach for three semesters.

O’Brien isn’t shy about having limited experience as a golf coach. She played the sport competitively as a kid growing up in Phoenix, once appearing in a golf instructional video at age 11. Wearing a hot pink polo and plaid shorts, O’Brien’s one line went something like this, “My dad thinks golf is really hard, but it’s really not. It’s actually pretty easy. One day he’ll come around.”

But O’Brien also was a skilled soccer player, specifically in goal, and as she got older, her family’s financial constraints didn’t lend itself to playing two sports seriously. She did play varsity golf her junior and senior years, but by that time, she had committed to Arizona for soccer. She still holds the Wildcats’ program record for fewest goals allowed in a career, and as a senior, she led the Pac-10 in saves. O’Brien then turned professional and spent five seasons as the goalkeeper for the Charlotte Eagles of the USL W-League.

During her time in Charlotte, O’Brien met her husband, Kevin, also a professional soccer player and avid recreational golfer. She recalls the dating period including a few afternoon rounds per week. O’Brien also worked in the golf shop at Charlotte Country Club while coaching club and high school soccer. She later transitioned to coaching college soccer, at Pfeiffer, Charlotte and then Lipscomb, where for nine seasons she served as a volunteer assistant and goalkeepers coach under her husband. Together, their teams won six ASUN titles.

“Goalkeeping and golf are a lot alike,” O’Brien says. “Both are about saving shots, being strategic, your performance is immediately reflective on the scoreboard and it’s easy to lose concentration. You have a lapse and suddenly you drop a shot.”

O’Brien began her transition to the women’s golf program in Spring 2021, and her experience as the school’s athletics director of the women’s spiritual formation, Lawley said then, “is what makes her amazing and perfect for this role. She will mentor the girls on the golf course with her coaching experience, but more importantly, she will guide them spiritually beyond the game.”

Adds O’Brien now: “Thankfully, that had built a lot of rapport and a lot of trust prior to this season.”

O’Brien recalls the Zoom meeting last August in which Lawley broke the news to their players that she was leaving, and O’Brien was temporarily filling the position. After Lawley signed off, O’Brien told the players, “I believe in you. I truly believe we’ve all been selected for such a time as this. I’m committed, I’ll see this through, and I truly believe that each of you have the talent and ability to do this thing. But there’s also a really special opportunity that we have to be united and step forward together.”

The spirited message resonated.

“It kind of grounded us, like, we’ll get through this, we’ll figure out how to move on,” sophomore Lauren Thompson said. “Just that confidence that we were still very capable of what we wanted too doo, and that she believe in us, it was a great moment to settle down and press forward.”

On the team’s vision board to start the year was, among other things, the goal of winning the ASUN title. The Bison had finished third the previous season, so it wasn’t unrealistic. “It’s kind of been the same group the last few years, so we knew last year that we had a lot of potential,” senior Mary Kate Smith said. During the team’s fall retreat, though, O’Brien challenged the squad to put in the work necessary to achieve it.

“We don’t pull the velcro off the poster board until the end of the season,” Smith added. “But we do have already a lot of things that we could pull off.”

Lipscomb closed the fall with its first win, in the Bahamas. A spring-opening win followed. And two more victories in March. Then the Bison sat fifth with 18 holes remaining at the ASUN Championship in Owens Crossroads, Alabama. Six shots off the lead, Lipscomb turned in a closing 7-over round to clip Florida Gulf Coast by two shots.

Thompson won the individual title, and Smith was later named conference player of the year with O’Brien taking home coach-of-the-year honors.

“But it’s taken us all to win,” O’Brien emphasizes. “All seven of us.”

The question now begs: What else does O’Brien have to do to earn the title of permanent head coach? She says she’s at peace with whatever decision the school makes, but for now, her sole focus is on regionals.

Her players know how they feel.

“I think this season speaks for itself,” Thompson said. “I could go on and on, but just the closeness and camaraderie that’s made this season so special has had a lot to do with her and her leadership and guidance, the way she’s brought us all together. … Just the person she is, even outside of golf, I think all the girls on the team would agree that she just cares so deeply about us as people and not just players putting up a score.

“Shannon has meant the world to all of us.”

O’Brien is aware that Lipscomb’s run to the postseason is a Cinderella story, that what comes next this season is “icing on the cake.” 

But there’s also a new goal on that vision board: To qualify for the NCAA Championship.

“We want to go to nationals, so our goal is to figure out how we qualify, how we finish in the top five [at regionals],” O’Brien says. “We know it’s not going to be an easy endeavor, but all the more reason to enjoy the moment, this incredible opportunity.”

Source link