Near the end of the 2019 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Women’s Golf Championships, Southwestern University’s Leilani McDaniel approached one of the final holes of the two-day event. 

The defending-champion Pirates opened up a big lead in the opening round, and as McDaniel worked her way through the back nine, the Pirates all but wrapped up their second consecutive conference championship, leaving only one question to be answered: who would be the individual conference champion?

McDaniel was on track to claim the honor she missed out on just a year earlier, losing by one stroke to Texas Lutheran University’s Summer Swift on the first playoff hole. The only obstacle she faced now was teammate Emily Campbell. 

Campbell played ahead of McDaniel. As the latter finished up, the two crossed paths for a brief moment.  

“I went up to her and asked, ‘Did you get it?’ and she said yes,” McDaniel said. “I didn’t have an ounce of disappointment. I was so overwhelmed with joy for her.” 

A month later, when McDaniel edged out Campbell for the SCAC Golfer of the Year award, that same unbridled joy for a teammate’s success at the expense of their own was reciprocated. 

“Emily texted to congratulate me,” McDaniel said. “She said, ‘I’m so proud of you. You deserve it. All the work you’ve done has paid off.’ She supported me even though she was in the running for the award.”

Collegiate golf takes an individual sport and repackages it as a team endeavor, combining scores from a five-person lineup. The extent of the Pirates’ recent success within this dynamic, including back-to-back conference championships, has largely been built on the friendship of Campbell and McDaniel.  

“They helped bring the program to where it is now,” Head Coach Greg Sigler said. “We had a strong recruiting class with six first-years and a Division I transfer, and it was because of them and what they’ve done the past few years being the great students and ambassadors.” 

Leilani McDaniel'20 Leilani McDaniel'20

McDaniel chose Southwestern University because of its proximity to her hometown of Austin and a strong pre-med program. She quickly made her mark on the golf course, earning SCAC Newcomer of the Year and All-SCAC Second Team. Campbell transferred a year later from Texas A&M University, where she was on the Division I golf team, for an opportunity to focus more on academics. 

“[Leilani and I have] been really close since my first day here,” Campbell said. “We’ve played together almost every tournament, and I’m just amazed by her work ethic. She’s always studying, always going, yet she still also cares a lot about others.” 

“Emily came in my second year and became my partner in everything. She’s really one of my best friends,” McDaniel said. “She’s an incredible person who works so hard on and off the course. She’s a genius in the classroom.”

When Campbell decided to leave Texas A&M, she still had offers to play at other Division I schools. It was the classroom that brought her to Southwestern University.

The demands of a Division I athlete can be taxing for those who also want a rigorous academic life. For Campbell, a history major with plans on attending law school after graduation, priorities quickly shifted.

“I knew I didn’t want to be a professional golfer. That wasn’t in me. My heart was into academics,” Campbell said. “I actually googled ‘top liberal-arts schools’ in Texas and Southwestern came up on top, so I contacted Coach Sigler, and it was the best decision of my life.”

Campbell’s first visit to the campus convinced her immediately, even if Sigler took the interest with a grain of salt.

“He looked at me and was like, ‘OK.’ He didn’t believe me until a month later, when I officially accepted,” Campbell said. “He texted me in all caps: ‘YOU DEPOSITED?!’”

“[With her] having the DI experience with a couple of big schools still looking at her, I didn’t believe her at first,” Sigler said. “She’d played at a high level for such a long time and just wanted to focus on academics, and it was awesome to have her.

“She stepped into a leadership role right away. I was worried there might be that DI attitude, where you think you’re better than everyone else, but it was totally the opposite. She made everyone feel welcome.” 

When Campbell first arrived at Southwestern, she needed to find her love for the game again. She’d first developed it around five years old, when her father would take her for 18 holes on a golf cart with some candy and red Gatorade. At Texas A&M, it’d become more chore than passion. 

In one of her first tournaments with Southwestern, Campbell struggled through the front nine.

“I was really nervous, and I went seven over through nine holes, and I looked at Coach Sigler kind of tense, expecting him to yell at me,” Campbell said. “I said, ‘Coach, I’m doing really bad,’ and he just put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘It’s OK. Just go out and have fun.’ My jaw just dropped. I was like, ‘What?! We’re here to have fun?’ From there, I shot three under the rest of the day.”

“Coach Sigler is a pretty consistent guy,” McDaniel said. “He likes to see us keeping it together on the course. If things are going bad, he wants us to stay sound emotionally.” 

“Golf is hard enough to play as it is without having someone jump on your back and yelling at you,” Sigler said. “We fit well as far as my coaching style and the way she plays. I hope it helped her to know it’s more about how you carry yourself.”

That 2017–18 season, the Pirates won four events, with three other second-place finishes heading into the conference tournament. On the first day of the SCAC Championships, Southwestern opened an eight-shot lead over Trinity University but lost Campbell, who injured her back and had to withdraw.

Trinity seized the momentum on the second day, taking a brief lead heading into McDaniel’s final shot.

“I didn’t play the previous hole very well. I didn’t play it the way I wanted to,” McDaniel said. “So I approached it with a lot of fire.”

On a par 5, McDaniel hit a wedge shot, missing the green but chipping it up to an 8- t0 10-footer, when Sigler drove up on a golf cart.

“I knew if we made it, we would tie and go into a playoff,” Sigler said. “I decided not to go up to her and tell her the situation.”

“I kind of felt something was up because my group was one of the last to finish and everyone was standing there watching us,” McDaniel said. “I had this feeling, but I didn’t realize it was that important.”

“She just went through her normal routine and nailed the putt,” Sigler said. “She didn’t let the moment control her. Mentally, she’s probably the strongest player I’ve had at Southwestern.” 

The shot not only kept Southwestern alive; it gave Campbell an opportunity to get back into the game. A phone call to the NCAA confirmed Campbell was eligible to participate in the playoff despite withdrawing earlier.

“What I remember most is it was never a question to her whether she was going to play,” McDaniel said. “It took a lot for her physically and emotionally to dig deep and play in that playoff, and she probably did the best out of any of us. To see her come back with so much confidence and triumph through that was inspiring.”

“She came in and played three holes and was instrumental in us winning that conference championship,” Sigler said. “She has that never-quit attitude.”

That resolve would be pushed to its limits over the next few months after it was revealed that the back pain Campbell had suffered during the conference championship was a ruptured disc in her back.

“Originally, I was told it would be a couple of months and I’d get to play again,” Campbell said. “But after three cortisone shots, it didn’t get better. I waited the entire summer, and my back was still messed up.” 

The pain became excruciating enough that doctors questioned whether she should play again. 

“She got here and finally felt like she found a place where she fit in, and her back started acting up,” Sigler said. “There were times during that process where I think she thought about hanging it up, but she never did. I’m really proud of her for fighting through it.”

Campbell didn’t fight alone. McDaniel was there every step of the way, driving her to the twice-a-week rehabilitation appointments and helping however she could.

“I’ve never had any major injuries, so it was hard to relate [to] what she was going through, but because we were so close, I could empathize,” McDaniel said. “I wanted to offer her as much support as I could, driving her to therapy, helping her with workouts, and keeping her updated when the team was on the road and she had to stay.”

“She was really supportive when I got my injury,” Campbell said. “She’d go to all the doctor appointments and help me with my rehab. She was a really positive influence for me at that time.”

For Campbell, the climb back was a long, arduous process.

“I played really bad [my first competition back] because I was so scared I’d hurt my back again,” Campbell said. “It was a mental battle to get back to swinging aggressively again.”

While McDaniel provided support, Sigler set a culture that allowed Campbell room to work her way back slowly. By the spring, Campbell was showing glimpses of her old self heading into the 2019 SCAC Championships.

In 2018, the Pirates escaped with a narrow victory over Trinity. A year later, Southwestern led from start to finish without ever really being challenged in a convincing 46-shot victory.

Emily Campbell '20 Emily Campbell ’20

McDaniel scored a 77 in both rounds to finish with a 154, but Campbell was even better, leading the field with six birdies to go with 21 pars, scoring a 152 to win the championship.

“That was one of my favorite memories at Southwestern,” McDaniel said. “Emily won; I got runner up. It was so awesome to see her get that accolade after all she’s been through. Playing with her means a lot to me. She taught me what it means to work hard and persevere on the course. I’m really proud of everything she’s accomplished and honored to be her teammate.”

“I thought it was perfect,” Sigler said. “She deserved it as much as she’s been through,for as hard as she’s worked and what she meant to the team, too. That was a happy moment in my coaching career.”

A month later, McDaniel became the eighth Pirate to win SCAC Golfer of the year and also took home the conference’s inaugural Elite 19 award, posting an 80.06 scoring average through 18 rounds that season, with a tournament win at the Abilene Intercollegiate.

“It was well deserved. She juggled the academics, community service, and even a job amazingly,” Sigler said. “She was probably one of the strongest competitors we’ve had on the women’s team. Very strong and confident.”

At some point, when life returns to normal, the duo will meet on the golf course once more before going their separate ways. McDaniel will go to dental school after graduation, and Campbell has plans on going to law school.

Still, they’ll inevitably find ways to cross paths, catch up, and share milestones. As each is presented with their own opportunities on and off the course, you can almost hear them asking each other, Did you get it?

No matter the answer, it’s comforting to know the support for each other will always remain constant.

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