ENGLEWOOD — It was a day for Kerigan Klauber that she could best describe as bittersweet.
As arguably the most decorated girl to ever play golf at McMinn Central, the senior signed a national letter of intent to continue her education and athletic career at the University of North Alabama at the NCAA Division I level.
Klauber’s signing ceremony Wednesday at Central High School was on the three-year anniversary of the death of her grandfather, Raymond Handley, a man who had brought introduced Klauber to golf from a young age and taught her many lessons over the years about both golf and life before he passed during her freshman year.
“It really means a lot, just having him (grandfather) there, helping me along the way,” Klauber said after her signing. “He taught me so much on and off the golf course.
“So it’s a bittersweet day, but I know he’s here, and I know he’s proud of me, and it’s just an experience I wouldn’t give up.”
The influence Klauber’s grandfather had on her growing up, as well as the talent she had developed on the golf course, was obvious to Central assistant golf coach Bob Lambert well even before Klauber began high school.
“He was just a tremendous influence on Kerigan,” said Lambert, who got to help coach Klauber all four of her years at Central. “He had her out at a young age, and just watching her growing up hitting balls, I thought, ‘Lord, if she could come to Central it would make us really, really strong.’ And we were just lucky that she was able to come and play for us. She grew year after year here and kept getting better and better, and I think if there’s ever been a kid that worked at it. She hit balls pretty much every single day.
“And I was so glad to have her here representing Central High School as a lady first and as a golfer second, because the kids who played with her loved playing with her.”
Central head coach Daniel Curtis, who coached Klauber her last two years, noted it also takes a community to nurture the success of a student-athlete, and that was the case with Klauber. The owners of Ridgewood Golf Club, Tammy and Bryan Ford, always let Klauber hit on the course at any time.
“(Division I) in anything is big-time especially in a small town like this,” Curtis said. “It just goes to show the work she’s put in it and the time she’s put in it and the people who have helped her. She has had a great support staff, and thanks to Mrs. Tammy and Bryan for letting her being on the course all the time, so we’re just thrilled to death that happened. She can’t be that good by herself. It takes a community, but she has put in her share of work and the people have taken care of her.”
About her own growth in golf while at Central, Klauber believes she matured from someone who just hit balls on the course to an actual player of the game.
“My freshman year, I played golf, but I wasn’t what you call a player. I just went out there and hit golf balls,” Klauber said. “But I’ve really grown over the last four years, and now I know how to play and how to be a player. I know when something is working, when something is not working, and I could definitely see myself grow.”
That maturation was evident as Klauber progressed through her high school golf career. She was a district medalist all four years and a region runner-up her last three years.
Klauber also participated in the TSSAA state tournament all of her last three years, placing 26th her sophomore year, then breaking out with a 10th-place finish her junior season and concluding her career at Central this fall with a sixth-place state finish.
Along the way, Klauber set individual nine-hole school records. Klauber was the first Central girl to shoot a nine-hole even-par round her junior year, a feat she repeated twice. Then her senior season, Klauber became the first Central girl to shoot a nine-hole round under par with a 33.
“Coming in my freshman year I just wanted to play,” Klauber said. “I didn’t think about breaking records or anything at the school, and now I’ve done that and I feel like it’s a really huge accomplishment.”
While Klauber believes she’s always been good off the tee, it was the short game where she saw she needed to improve, and she credits her success to the work she put in on that part.
“I’ve always been a long hitter, so I’m proud of that now, and my short game has come a long way,” Klauber said. “It’s really helped me get to this level.”
That is something Curtis also noticed about Klauber, along with the way she carried herself on the course.
“Just blessed to have her on the program and on the team, and I don’t think there’s any better,” Curtis said. “She’s been golden for us character-wise, golfing-wise, and a great family.
“Her putting got a lot better this year. Her demeanor got a lot better, she didn’t get as frustrated. And it’s going to happen, you’re going to get frustrated, but she held it together a lot.”
North Alabama had been the only Division I school Klauber had been talking with during her recruitment. Mississippi College and Carson-Newman had also been on her list, but she narrowed it down between North Alabama and Union University in Jackson. Klauber’s two finalists had been even in her mind for about a week before she decided on the school in Florence, Alabama, which has an enrollment of over 8,800 students this fall.
The proximity of North Alabama to two prime courses, RTJ Golf Trail at Muscle Shoals and Turtle Point, also helped make Klauber’s decision final.
“We tried weighing all our options and they came out pretty even,” Klauber said. “But I just decided to step out of my comfort zone and go to a bigger school. And they had two beautiful golf courses that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play on.”
Klauber also said she had a “funny story” about how her decision was made final, which happened while she and her family were on a trip to visit another potential destination school in Indiana.
“We passed an exit that said ‘Union’ and ‘Florence,’ and Florence is where this school is at,” Klauber said. “And we got off on the exit and the next sign we see is a big water tower that says, ‘Florence,’ and I said, ‘Y’all, that might be a sign.’”
Klauber is undecided on an exact major but is sure “it’s going to have a lot of math involved.” As far as preparing to compete at the Division I level, Klauber will continue to do the same work that has led to her success at Central.
“Obviously I’m still going to focus on my short game,” Klauber said. “I’ve still got some work to do on that. But I think once I get that under control, I’ll be a good player and be able to compete with some of the best in Division I, and I look forward to it.”