🔶The week's Thursday's Hero is Anna Pitts!🔶
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) September 17, 2021
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– At the University of Virginia, the women’s golf program consists of 10 players and two coaches, plus a handful of support staffers who work with other teams as well.
Those golfers include graduate student Beth Lillie, who didn’t grasp the magnitude of head football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s program until she became part of that operation this summer. Mendenhall, who’s in his sixth season at Virginia, oversees a small army of players, coaches, analysts, regional scouts, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning staffers, videographers and administrative assistants, as well as a full-time dietician.
“It’s probably the biggest contrast you could get with women’s golf,” said Lillie, who placed ninth at the NCAA Championships last spring. “My two coaches, they’re awesome, but they just do it all. They’re pretty much managing our entire program and coaching and doing everything.
“In football, it looks like the military, basically, when you go to practice. There’s so many people there. I think my first couple practices I didn’t want to get in anybody’s way, I didn’t want to mess up the system, because it’s run so tight. It was really impressive, and I’m still impressed every time I go. All the work they put into it is really cool to see, and it makes me even more invested when I watch the games.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA granted student-athletes who competed in 2020-21 another year of eligibility, as well as to those whose seasons were cut short in the spring of 2020. That opened up possibilities for Lillie, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in politics, and she chose to return to UVA for a fifth year.
“I knew that last season was not how I wanted to end my time in a place that I love so much,” said Lillie, who’s from Fullerton, Calif. “Obviously, a lot of people transfer for their fifth year, which is totally fine, but for me that just was never really an option. I knew I wanted to play at UVA, so I sort of took a week to think about it and talk to my parents and figure out a [graduate] program that I wanted to do.”
Then she texted head women’s golf coach Ria Scott. “I said, ‘If you’ll have me, I’d really like to do this again,’ ” Lillie said. “So it worked out pretty quick. There weren’t many speed bumps.”
Lillie is pursuing a master’s degree in higher education from UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, and her program’s requirements include an internship. Last spring, Lillie said, she received a list of about 20 potential internships, most of which “had nothing to do with athletics. They were interesting internships, but I knew I wanted to do something in sports.”
There were two internships in UVA’s athletic department for 2021-22: one in the compliance office and the other with the video services for football. “That caught my eye right away,” Lillie recalled, “just because working with the football team would be really fun.”
Lillie said she learned that the position “required a little bit of video skill and editing skill, and I had a very small background in that. But they said they’d offer me some training and show me the ropes.
“I was definitely no expert, so that’s what I did a lot this summer. I was out there during fall camp quite a bit, just working with the camera I was going to use and kind of practicing on the sidelines.”
Her supervisor is Luke Goldstein, UVA’s assistant athletics director for video services. Previous interns came in with more video experience than Lillie had, Goldstein said, but he was confident she would grow into the job.
“She’s a student-athlete,” Goldstein said. “I know she can handle anything. We can teach her how to do these things. You don’t have to be a Steven Spielberg out here to do this kind of stuff. I knew that she could handle it, and she’s proved that point already.”
Goldstein smiled. “I also told her that part of this deal was that she needed to give me some golf lessons. So I’m waiting on that.”
Lillie is responsible for producing the videos from the Thursday’s Heroes program, which has become a cornerstone of UVA football under Mendenhall.
Each week during the season, a local resident who’s facing medical challenges is welcomed into the Cavaliers’ football family. Thursday’s Heroes and their families tour the football complex, including the McCue Center and the George Welsh Indoor Practice Facility, and meet the team. Then, during a post-practice celebration that often includes surprise guests, the hero receives gifts from the players and signs the flag the Wahoos carry onto the field with them before every game.
Before practice on Thursdays, the team watches a video, produced by Lillie, that provides background on that week’s hero. Later she’ll produce another video commemorating the Thursday Hero’s interaction with the team.
“It’s turned into a really nice little piece for us,” Goldstein said. “I think fans look forward to it on Twitter, on Facebook, to see what’s going on with the team.”
Putting together a Thursday’s Hero video can be emotionally draining, Lillie said. “I feel like I tear up in front of my computer just working on them, and that makes it feel like it’s not a task that I need to do, or a job. These kids and adults have gone through stuff that is way harder than anything I’ve ever gone through, so they deserve to have this video made of them and they deserve to have it made well, and I’m just happy that I get to help them do that and help them find a way to remember this super cool day that UVA football gives them.”
Our Hoos family got a little bigger. Kade Newcomb is this week's Thursday Hero!
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) September 10, 2021
Lillie followed Cavalier football before her internship started. “I love going to games, I love watching it,” she said. “I’m just a big sports fan in general, so I watch any and all UVA sports.”
She and offensive lineman Ryan Nelson went to rival high schools in California and became friends at UVA, and Lillie knew a couple of other players on the football team. “I didn’t really have that many connections to it,” Lillie said, “but it’s been cool to sort of get involved and make some friends in that whole squad.”
When she first showed up at practices with a video camera, Lillie said, “I don’t think anybody knew what I was doing. They were like, ‘What is this golfer doing at football practice, wandering around aimlessly?’ But I think they know now.”
On a typical Thursday, Lillie will go from football practice to class to golf practice at Birdwood and then back to the McCue Center, where she starts editing her video.
“Obviously, being a student-athlete, it’s a push on my schedule,” Lillie said, “but I’ve actually really come to love it and love the busyness of it. Working with football has been super fun, and I’ve learned a new skill too, so I’ve loved every minute.”
Goldstein said: “I knew she could handle balancing her schoolwork and her travel and her playing. And I knew also that the position is flexible enough that there’s going to be a couple times where she won’t be able to be here, so I’ll handle it or somebody else will handle it.
“I felt like we owed it back to her, for being a student-athlete here for so long, to have some flexibility, to give her an internship where she can really succeed and do some cool stuff in here. It’s a different experience, and she’s helping us out and we’re helping her out and we can make it work. I give her a lot of flexibility. She doesn’t have to sit in here and edit. She can go home [and finish the videos]. So it’s easy.”
Lillie hasn’t interacted much with Mendenhall but said he “seems like a super great guy, with super clear values and goals, and the way he treats his team is super cool to observe.”
She also praised Scott, who had no reservations about Lillie’s internship.
“Coach is the first person to want you to be a whole person and not just be singularly focused on golf,” Lillie said, “so she was excited for me to get that opportunity in working with football. I think she knows me well enough to know that that’s something that would make me really excited and that would fulfill me. It was just mutual excitement, and she was totally flexible about my class schedule and everything like that. It was sort of a mess in the beginning, figuring it out, but I couldn’t ask for more flexible and more adaptive coaches.”
On fall Saturdays, the women’s golf team often plays tournaments or practices, so Lillie hasn’t had any football responsibilities on weekends. But if there’s a break in her schedule, Goldstein said, she’s “more than welcome to come work a game. We’re happy to have her out there.”
Lillie hopes to be able to work the football team’s regular-season finale, Nov. 27 against Virginia Tech at Scott Stadium. “That would be pretty fun,” she said.
In May, the UVA women’s golf team placed ninth at the NCAA Regional in Columbus, Ohio. That wasn’t enough for the Hoos to advance, but Lillie’s three-round total of 217 strokes qualified her for the NCAA Championships in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Her ninth-place finish at NCAAs was the third-highest ever by a Cavalier, and Lillie was proud of her achievement. “But on the other side of that,” she said, “I knew that it wasn’t my last year in college and I couldn’t think of that as something that would guarantee my success this year. So I think in a way it kind of provided a challenge for me to go a step further [in 2021-22]: How am I gonna sort of climb up this whole mountain again this year and try and get an even better result this year? So that’s something I’ve been mentally dealing with, and it’s been a good exercise for me.”
Lillie isn’t sure if she’ll pursue a professional golf career after she earns her master’s next spring.
“I’m still a little bit up in the air about it, to be quite honest with you,” she said, “It’s what I want to do and I know it’s probably what I should do, just given how much I put it into golf, but I also know that that lifestyle is kind of a grind, and it’s a lonely lifestyle. I’m kind of using this year to decide if my whole heart is in that or if I want to do something else.”
Coaching at the college level might be an intriguing option eventually, Lillie said. “I love being on a team, and I think that college golf is one of the most exciting and rewarding things you can do. I’ve personally loved it, and I see how I can help other people in a really personal way.”
To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click here and subscribe.