Upper St. Clair girls golf coach living American dream after immigrating from Philippines

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Wednesday, September 14, 2022 | 7:01 PM


Tuesday’s weather in the Pittsburgh area brought the first nip of fall to the air. But with the temperature still hovering around 70 degrees at mid-afternoon, few folks were ready to consider the prospect of wearing extra layers of clothing.

Upper St. Clair girls golf coach Mercedes Epondulan was one of the few. Even after nearly two decades in Western Pennsylvania, she still isn’t used to the chill.

“This is cold for me,” she said with a laugh.

For someone who spent the first 12 years of her life living in the sultry climate of the Philippines, it is easy to see how mid-September in Pittsburgh could seem brisk.

Epondulan, 29 and in her first season with the Panthers, is living the quintessential American dream: Part of a large Filipino family who came to the United States in search of opportunity, she has found her niche in golf. She played at Allderdice then at Cal (Pa.), and now, in addition to coaching at Upper St. Clair, she is working as a PGA apprentice at Valley Brook Country Club with an eye toward being a teaching professional.

“Just being here, being a coach, who would have thought that I would be a coach?” Epondulan said. “It’s just surreal to be coaching a sport that I hated.”

The journey began with her sister, Elpidia, the eldest of Epondulan’s eight older siblings. The family long had talked about coming to the United States, and Elpidia was the first to take the plunge.

She had met a pen pal — that’s the old-school pen-and-paper equivalent of meeting someone online — from the Pittsburgh area, so she put down roots here. Elpidia worked multiple jobs until she had enough money to bring her mother over.

The rest of the family followed — their father and a brother remained in the Philippines — including the “baby,” 12-year-old Mercedes.

As might be expected, the transition was difficult initially. Epondulan had grown up on one of the Philippines’ small islands where it was mostly mountains and ocean, and everyone knew almost everyone else.

Then there was the language barrier. Epondulan, though she knew some English, spoke primarily Bisaya, a dialect of the Philippines’ main language, Tagalog.

“Anytime somebody would talk to me or ask me a question,” she said, “I would have to pause to translate it into at least two different languages and then understand it and then translate it back.”

As the family began to assimilate into their American surroundings, the children were encouraged to get involved in an activity. Epondulan’s brother-in-law, David, introduced her and her sister, Mary, to golf through the First Tee of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Youth Golf Foundation. (Mary Epondulan also played a year of golf at Cal.)

At first, Epondulan was unimpressed. She found it boring standing over a little, white ball for hours. On top of it, everyone spoke too quickly for her to understand most of the conversations. Her family, however, insisted she stick with it, and she wound up falling in love with the game. Perhaps just as importantly, Epondulan fell in love with the atmosphere around the First Tee.

“The First Tee was diverse. It still is,” she said. “The people and coaches were helpful, and they knew English wasn’t my first language. … They were very kind to my sister and me. I was making friends, and now it felt like I belonged somewhere.”

She began pursuing the game in earnest, playing well enough at Allderdice to get a shot at Cal (Pa.). She played for the Vulcans from 2013-17, posting a scoring average of 85.5 in 11 matches during her senior season.

The job at Upper St. Clair fell into her lap. Mike Papson, head professional at Valley Brook, told Epondulan that USC was looking for a girls golf coach, and the prospect intrigued her.

“I said, ‘How long do I have? How long before I need to tell you?’ ” she said. “He said, ‘Tomorrow.’ I had less than 24 hours to let him know.”

The Panthers have been competitive in Epondulan’s first season. After Tuesday’s tri-match win over Bethel Park and Elizabeth Forward, the Panthers stood at 5-7-1 overall.

Despite Epondulan’s hasty introduction to the team, the players believe the move has worked.

“She’s such a nice coach, and we’ve all been able to adapt really nicely to her,” said senior captain Anna McElligott.

Added fellow senior captain Natalie Zunic: “She has taught me a lot of new things with my golf game. She’s a really good teacher, and, personally, I think she’s a really good coach.”

Once the high school season ends, Epondulan, now an American citizen, will return her focus to her apprenticeship. There are three levels aspiring pros must pass — the third level has two tiers — and Epondulan is working on Level 2. Her primary duties at Valley Brook are giving lessons to juniors and beginners, but, eventually, she wants to be able to teach players of all levels.

She also has a special desire to help the First Tee.

“I am very glad and fortunate to get this opportunity, and, hopefully, down the road, I want to give back,” she said. “And not just to Valley Brook but to the First Tee. Golf is a very expensive sport, and there’s not a lot of young girls, so I just want to teach and give back.”

Perhaps one day, golf will enable her to make an impact on someone just like her, a young person who is seeking their own version of the American dream. But it’s clear she already has inspired her players at Upper St. Clair.

“She has a lot of courage to do that, leave her country and all of that,” Zunic said. “I thought it was pretty cool of her and took a lot of bravery.”

Added McElligott: “It’s an amazing story, and I think it shows all of us that anything is possible if you have enough courage to dream about it.”

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