Pilar Echeverria during 2018 NCAA Championship (UIndy Athletics)
Pilar Echeverria grew up in a place nicknamed “eternal springland.” In her native Guatemala, the temperature rarely tops 80 degrees or dips below 60. Needless to say, her adopted hometown of Indianapolis, Ind., is prone to far more extremes.
“My first year, it was a real shock coming back in January,” Echeverria says good-naturedly.
It was different, but it was right. Two and a half years later, Echeverria is a key part of the University of Indianapolis team that is preparing to defend its NCAA Division II national title next month. Weather has gone from a non-factor to a strength, but that’s only part of the equation. She names a handful of career-defining moments on her journey to the top of women’s college golf, and many of them happened in the Midwest.
The gap is closing between Divisions I and II in women’s college golf. The overlap is just a given – until it’s so obvious that it becomes a talking point, like when Echeverria won the Division I-dominant Lady Buckeye Invitational earlier this month. She was the only woman in the 75-player field to finish under par. Seventy of those players were Division I.
Behind Echeverria’s performance, Indianapolis tied for fifth. The support came flooding in from other Division II programs who were watching.
“It’s not only UIndy I’m representing, it’s Division II I’m representing,” she said.
Echeverria began a 36-hole day at Ohio State’s Scarlett Course with a 3-under 69, which was better than all but one player. The next day, Echeverria played her first five holes in 2 over in a cold, wet wind.
After a brief delay, the weather cleared up, but the course was already saturated. Echeverria played her next 14 holes in even par, which was good enough for a one-shot win.
“I was the most consistent player out there and ended up winning,” she said. It was her fifth title of the season and her second straight.
All told, Echeverria has won 11 times as a Hound. She was runner-up at last year’s NCAA Division II Women’s Championship. Indianapolis won for the second time in the past four years after never having won that title before 2015.
Echeverria has perhaps stronger memories of NCAA Regionals, which Indianapolis also won. On the final day in Big Rapids, Mich., Indianapolis leap-frogged Grand Valley State to win its seventh consecutive regional title.
“We didn’t want to be a team that breaks, we didn’t want to be the team that didn’t win regionals,” she said. “We came together in regionals more on a personal level than in golf and it showed at nationals how we supported each other.”
Echeverria won the individual regional title in 2017, too.
With each victory that Echeverria describes, there is also a bit of wisdom from head coach Brent Nicoson tucked into the story. At the NCAA finals, it was about winning each day. In Ohio, it was about using the weather to your advantage.
Echeverria found her way to Nicoson’s squad with help from Nick Zappin, her personal swing coach in Guatemala. Zappin had played college golf for Johnson & Wales, an NAIA school. Echeverria visited other schools, and in warmer climates, but there was an instant connection in Indianapolis.
“Coach saw something in me that no one else did,” she said. “I feel like my personal values as a player and as a person matched Coach and the team.”
As Zappin said, “you’ll grow the most where you feel comfortable,” and that has played out exactly.
From Nicoson’s perspective, he remembers initially watching a highlight video that Echeverria sent to several schools. Then he looked at the yardages she had written down on her resume and did a double-take.
“I thought, this can’t be right,” he said.
Echeverria says simply, “I’m a good par-5 player because I hit it long.” She’s second in the nation in scoring average, and fourth in par-5 scoring. She describes herself as a smart player who tries to keep the big numbers off her card.
“That comes from both of my coaches,” she said.
Nicoson also remember an instant connection when Echeverria arrived in Indianapolis. She contributes across the board – as a player, as a leader and as a teammate who holds people accountable.
“If things start to tense up, I try to make them laugh or make a joke out of the situation,” said Echeverria, adding “mediator” to her description of her role within the team.
On the course, Echeverria is a feel player and frequently sends videos of her swing to Zappin during the season. Zappin has coached her that way, and she struggles to describe exactly what changes or adaptations she might be making to her swing from week to week.
While college golf has helped Echeverria get to the next level, she wasn’t always sure she was meant for professional golf. That has changed since arriving in Indianapolis.
She vividly remembers playing for Guatemala at the 2012 World Amateur Team Championship. It was her first “huge event,” and Lydia Ko, representing New Zealand, won the individual title.
“She turned pro, and that really opened my eyes,” she said. “Nick and I sat down and talked about it and wrote down some goals of where I want to be and what I want to do with golf.”
That’s become a ritual for each summer. Initially, Echeverria’s list revolved around short game and gaining physical strength, but also obtaining a college golf scholarship and qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
When Echeverria achieved the last goal, at the 2018 U.S. Women’s in San Diego, she took care to surround herself with players she could learn from. She played her first practice round with two players from UCLA and played alongside a Stanford player the next day.
“If I couldn’t make the cut at least I could learn a lot from them,” she said. “I did, their short game is amazing and they’re so consistent. Their misses are super small.”
There was a third thing, too: That Echeverria isn't far behind.