It’s no surprise that Challis High School senior Kelli Ann Strand didn’t want a lot of hoopla when she signed a letter of intent to play golf at the University of Nebraska.

The reigning Idaho 2A girls state golf champ and the 2021 Idaho Golf Association Women’s champion frequently shrugs off her accomplishments.

It wasn’t much different last week when she spoke about being awarded a full-ride, four-year scholarship to a Big 10 school. The University of Nebraska sports teams play in one of the country’s five power conferences. It’s a big deal for a big winner from a small town. Kelli Ann is the first Challis High School student to receive a full-ride Division I athletic scholarship in many years and perhaps the first ever to a Big 10 school.

Her intention to attend and play golf at Nebraska was made official on Nov. 10 with a signing at CHS. While Kelli Ann may contain some of the excitement about her honor, her coach and uncle, Eric Strand, doesn’t.

“It’s awesome. I’m star struck,” Eric Strand said. Eric Strand had been talking with college coaches for years about Kelli Ann. NCAA rules allow high school and college coaches to discuss players, but college coaches can’t reach out to athletes until teens complete their sophomore year of high school.

The recruiting process for Kelli Ann began less than a month after her sophomore year ended. She made four official campus visits and one unofficial visit before narrowing her choices to Nebraska and BYU. Those schools landed at the top of her list mostly because of the coaches. In the end, Kelli Ann said she “followed my gut,” and chose Nebraska.

Eric Strand said as he and Kelli Ann discussed the two final schools, that was his advice — to follow her gut.

Kelli Ann and her mom, Stephanie, visited the Lincoln, Nebraska, campus in August, a week before classes began. Members of the golf team were already on campus, practicing for the fall season, so she got to meet her future teammates, tour campus, check out the indoor golf practice facility, see the golf courses where the team practices and competes, attend a volleyball game and “see everything.”

The recruiting process was stressful she said, but also exciting. Now the decision has been made, she’s “super excited to play for Nebraska and to represent them.”

Kelli Ann will live and eat on the university’s athletic side, have access to coaches, the golf practice facility and counselors as needed, Eric Strand said. “They gave her everything they can, the golden ticket,” he said.

Eric Strand said he made five points about Kelli Ann when he spoke at her signing ceremony.

“She’s a winner,” he said. “What makes her that is she is passionate.” A 4.0 student, he pointed out Kelli Ann is passionate about her classes as well as her sport.

The second criteria he singled out is her emotional and mental toughness. “She’s proven that over and over.” Eric Strand singled out Kelli Ann’s composure when she made a 3-foot putt to win the state amateur title a few months ago. She makes tough plays in front of hundreds of people and moves on, he said.

Thirdly, her uncle said, is her drive and determination.

“The way she pushes herself — all year long. I don’t take it easy on her,” Eric Strand said. “But every time I push her, she pushes back. I haven’t found her limit yet.”

Fourth on the coach’s list is Kelli Ann’s “desire to win, not just to compete.”

Lastly, but probably the most important, Eric Strand said, is her hard work. “She works hard at everything. She’s very committed.”

The Nebraska coach, Lisa Johnson, has plenty of Idaho connections and familiarity with courses where Kelli Ann has played and won. In fact, her father-in-law, Wayne Johnson, lived in Challis when he was a kid. Lisa Johnson was the head coach at the University of Idaho from 2007 until 2019 and coached at Boise State University from 2002 until 2007. She has a master’s degree from Idaho and a bachelor’s degree from Gonzaga University.

In a news release from Nebraska, Johnson had high praise for Kelli Ann.

“Kelli Ann is a powerful player who truly understands how to compete,” Johnson said. “Her work ethic is unmatched. She has dominated the golf circuit in Idaho and will bring that winning tradition to Nebraska.”

Golf is a two-season sport at Nebraska. The Huskers team will compete in about five fall tournaments with a heavier spring schedule, Kelli Ann said. Spring is when all the championship events are held. Last spring the Huskers women’s team finished second in the conference tournament and a player on the team won the individual golf title.

“She is a senior this year, so I won’t get to play with her,” Kelli Ann said of the Nebraska champ.

Other Nebraska golfers come from all around the world. It’s not unusual for college golf teams to have international players, Kelli Ann said. Her two fellow recruits come from Mexico and Germany. Strand will be one of 10 golfers on the Nebraska women’s golf team. Five players compete at each tournament and the top four scores count for the team score.

Kelli Ann hasn’t settled on a major yet and plans to take general studies classes this fall. Until then she is looking forward to her senior year of Idaho high school golf competition that begins in April and expects CHS to field a full girls team this spring. She will compete in junior season tournaments all summer.

“It’s my last year (of eligibility) for those tournaments,” Kelli Ann said. And, not surprisingly, she’s “super excited” for the high school season and her summer season.

Kelli Ann gave props to her parents, her brother, both sets of grandparents and her uncle and coach Eric Strand for supporting her and helping her succeed as a golfer. Her parents are Matt and Stephanie Strand of Challis. Her brother, Lane, is playing golf on a scholarship at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa. Her grandparents are Challis residents Spencer and Evelyn Strand and Vicky and Wally Kendrick of Pocatello.

“They’re all pretty excited,” she said of her family about her decision.

She and Eric play the Challis course every chance they get all year, in fact playing 18 holes two days after Kelli Ann signed, Eric Strand said. In the dead of winter, they use the golf room at Spencer and Evelyn’s house to keep Kelli Ann in top form.

“There’s been a lot of sweat and tears between us, but there’s never been any blood,” Eric Strand said with a chuckle.

Eric said he’s saddened that his niece will leave for college in the fall, but is proud of her accomplishments and excited for her next adventure.

“Whatever she’s done, she earned it,” Eric Strand said. “She’s just delightful. That’s what got her to where she wants to be. I’m as proud as I could be as her uncle and her coach.”

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