By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Before she hit her first shot in the final round of last week’s NCAA Division II Championships, Paige Lucero received a piece of advice from her coach, Shawn Rodehorst.
He told her to slow down, look up and enjoy the moment.
“Golf can teach you a lot. People will tell you it teaches you integrity and it teaches you hard work,” Lucero said, “but the one big thing I took away is that you have to enjoy what you’re doing.”
The University of Nebraska at Kearney spring graduate certainly relished her time both on and off the course.
“I’ve had such an amazing experience at UNK,” she said. “It’s hard to put into words. I’ve made so many friends who have become like a second family.”
A native of Kingman, Arizona, where she attended Lee Williams High School, Lucero grew up golfing in the warmth and sunshine of the desert Southwest. Her journey to the Midwest is a “really funny story.”
“When I was in high school, I was in the athletic training program and that’s what I thought I wanted to do,” she explained. “My high school athletic trainer (John Blake) actually graduated from UNK, so he kind of put it on my radar.”
Lucero sent Rodehorst an email expressing her interest in UNK, but never received a response. A few weeks later, she tried again.
“We still kind of joke about that,” Rodehorst said with a laugh. “I could have sworn I emailed her back, but apparently it didn’t go through. It’s a good thing she emailed me again a month or so later.”
With the connection finally complete, Lucero and her parents flew to Nebraska for an official visit.
“The second I stepped on campus, I looked at my mom and said, ‘This is where I want to be,’” she recalled. “I knew it’d be a little bit of an adjustment with the cold, but I just felt at home on campus. It was small enough that I could know people on campus, but it wasn’t so small that I had to know everyone. It was just a great fit.”
Although she’s “a little on the quiet side,” the UNK coach counted on Lucero to lead by example.
“Off the course, she’s a very good student and she does all the things you would want someone to do,” he said. “On the course, she has developed more than just about anybody I can think of. She’s someone you can point to as an example of what hard work really does.”
A four-year starter for the Lopers, Lucero improved her season stroke average from 85.1 as a freshman to 80.23 in 2022-23. She ranks ninth in school history in career stroke average (81.78) and seventh in rounds played (76).
This season, she played her best when it mattered the most.
Lucero carded a 7-over 223 to tie for 12th place at the NCAA Central Regional, a 54-hole tournament hosted by the Grand Falls Golf Resort in Larchwood, Iowa. UNK finished third in the nine-team field, shooting a school-record 886 to qualify for the NCAA Division II Championships for the first time in program history.
The following week, Lucero led the Lopers with an 11-over 227 during the national championships at Fox Run Golf Club in Eureka, Missouri. She finished 38th individually and UNK was 13th in the team standings.
“That experience was surreal,” Lucero said. “Getting to play alongside some of the top players in the nation was awesome. It’s not something you get to do every day and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
“It’s honestly something I still think about,” she added. “Brooke King, Faviola Gonzalez, Juliana Botero, Allison Comer and I have played together for the past two years at almost every single tournament, and for us to be able to accomplish something like that was just amazing. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the support from our coaches, teammates and everyone else in the athletic department.”
There was little time to celebrate, though.
After finishing their final round of the season, the Lopers were on a plane later that evening. They arrived in Kearney at 3:30 a.m. the following morning, giving Lucero less than seven hours to prepare for another memorable event.
She walked across the stage during last week’s spring commencement ceremony to receive a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.
“It was a long couple of days,” Lucero said with a laugh. “Honestly, I had kind of come to terms with the fact that I probably wouldn’t be able to make it back, so when I was able to walk, it was really exciting. That definitely gave me a moment to reflect and look back at all the people who have supported me along the way. And it’s great to have that diploma in hand and know that all my hard work was worth it.”
A four-time MIAA Academic Honor Roll selection and two-time MIAA Excellence Award winner, Lucero graduated summa cum laude with her father, mother, sister and boyfriend in attendance. She’ll start physical therapy school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas next month.
With her work ethic, talent and personality, “I have no doubts that she’ll be a great physical therapist,” Rodehorst said.