PHOENIX – Nearly 50 years after the passing of Title IX, Chelsea Carroll symbolized the value of the game-changing education amendment. The South Mountain Community College coach became the first woman to lead a men’s team to an NJCAA National Championship when the Cougars recently captured the Division II title.
Carroll, 28, became the interim coach of the men’s golf team when Aaron Puetz stepped down in August to take over at Texas-El Paso. After a challenging season, balancing both the men’s and women’s teams, Carroll made history at South Mountain.
Despite taking only five players to the national championship, the Cougars dominated the field, finishing at +31, defeating the second-place team team by 19 strokes. For Carroll, having a small group was an advantage.
“Once the team got a little bit smaller with some guys leaving, it definitely brought the guys that stayed together, because we all had one common goal, and that was to win the national championship,” Carroll said.
Even though the season ended positively for South Mountain, the beginning was not easy for Carroll, or the team.
“I was excited for the opportunity,” she said. “But when we had the first meeting with the team, I knew that coming into the school they were expecting a coach that wasn’t me. So it was a little bit tough in the beginning, a little bit tough to gain their trust, and just understanding that we had the same goal. It’s going to be a little bit of a different process, but we’ll get there.”
As big of a challenge as that beginning was, Puetz knew from the start that Carroll was the right person for the job, and that she would succeed at SMCC.
“To me, it was an absolute perfect fit,” Puetz said. “When as soon as I met her, the way she presents herself the ideas that she already had to bring into the program. To me it was it was an absolute home run.”
One of the reasons that made both Puetz and Cougars Athletic Director Todd Eastin hand the men’s team over to Carroll was her success with the women’s program.
Caroll came to South Mountain in 2019 after she spoke to Tina Berratt, the coach of Ottawa University Arizona, and founded a women’s team with only two players. NJCAA regulations state that teams need at least four players to compete, and her job was to add numbers to the roster.
Even with a global pandemic coinciding with building the program, the 2021-22 season saw 11 women suit up for the Cougars, which could help build a new tradition at SMCC.
“My ultimate goal here for South Mountain is to bring a national championship for the women’s side,” Carroll said. “That’s something that has never been done before. … My office is flooded with all the men’s national championships, and keeping the men at that level and keeping the tradition strong it’s important, but also bringing the ladies to represent as well.”
Another reason South Mountain was excited for Carroll to oversee the program was her background. After graduating from Roger State in Oklahoma, the former golfer became a performance coach at a Division I sports training facility, and did an internship with EXOS Sports Performance.
“She’s helped me more than she probably realizes,” Puetz said. “She’s an expert with fitness. She’s really great at structure at practice. So I think that anything that Chelsea does, she’s going to be incredibly successful. I think she was born to be a coach. She’s a perfect fit for any program, whether it’s men’s or women’s.”
The biggest challenge for Carroll was to balance both teams. After three seasons with the women, she took on a team of 25 men and had to be prepared for the challenge of managing two squads. However, the golfer did not let that get the best of her.
“This is my passion, this is the dream that I’ve always wanted to do,” Carroll said. “I’ve always wanted to be a full-time head golf coach, and so when that opportunity happened, I was more happy than anything, and so I knew the challenges that were gonna be presented, but when you’re passionate about something, it’s just a different feeling, like you’re not scared of those challenges.”
Carroll’s work ethic is what allowed her to thrive as a coach.
“Prior to being the head coach, I think what really prepared me is, I was part time women’s head coach, as well as working full time at True North and I worked at Whole Foods, so I was doing all three of those, traveling across Arizona back and forth, so that I felt like prepared me for this,” she said. ‘So being in one place, and yes I had two teams, but this is cake for me. I was excited.”
After making history, Carroll now aspires to lead others like her and see more women succeed at traditional male roles.
“I think there’s always history that’s gonna be made and to be part of that is an honor,” she said. “And I hope I can inspire other women to just take on the challenges ahead and (know) nothing is impossible.”