By Gary Kalahar
Special to Second Half
EAST LANSING – If it’s possible for a defending MHSAA champion to lay in the weeds, the Plymouth High School girls golf team pulled it off this weekend.
Some early-season struggles might have kept the Wildcats out of the discussion of title contenders. But when the time came, Plymouth was ready to repeat. Plymouth captured its second consecutive Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship, emerging from a knot of teams at the top on a cold and soggy Saturday at Forest Akers West.
Plymouth finished two rounds at 706, four strokes in front of Rochester Hills Stoney Creek and five ahead of Troy. Those three teams were among five bunched within four strokes – and nine within 15 strokes – after the first round.
“Everybody had a chance to win,” Plymouth senior Kayla Whatley said. “We knew every stroke was going to count, because there are some good teams here and they were going to improve (from the first day).”
Plymouth led by two strokes after the first round, played in decidedly better conditions than the high-40 temperatures, cool breeze and intermittent rain of the second round. The Wildcats turned the worst day of the fall into the best.
“This one is better,” Plymouth junior Sydney Murphy said. “No one was expecting us to come out on top, and we did. We weren’t doing so well at the beginning, but we kept working at it, and here we are. We succeeded.”
Murphy, Whatley and sophomore Katie Chipman all helped Plymouth win the title last year. But that success didn’t carry over to 2013, at least early on as Plymouth had to replace two all-state players, including MHSAA medalist Kelsey Murphy. Even heading into the Regional, Plymouth was ranked just 10th in Division 1 by the coaches association.
“We started playing well the first of October and rode it through,” Plymouth coach Dan Young said. “We kept improving. It’s hard to explain. They’ve always practiced hard, done what they’re supposed to do. For whatever reason, they started playing better. They’ve gotten better, and it’s been together as a team.”
Whatley, the only senior of the five Wildcats who played in the MHSAA Final, said the title was somewhat of a surprise.
“We really wanted to get it last year,” she said of Plymouth’s first championship. “We played much better all year long (last year).But after we won the conference, then we got excited, and we knew we had the potential to compete and win this.”
Even in the poor conditions, four of the five Plymouth golfers improved their scores from the first day. Murphy’s 77 was nine better, and Whatley’s 89 was a seven-stroke improvement.
“I needed to contribute to the team,” Murphy said about rebounding from her uncharacteristic first round. “It’s a team sport, and you all have to contribute what you can.”
“To her credit, she didn’t get down,” Young said. “Her attitude was tremendous. That’s what it’s all about. They all knew they had to come back and play better, and they did.”
Murphy’s ninth-place individual finish was Plymouth’s best, but the Wildcats’ depth was the difference. Katie Chipman totaled 166 and Alaina Strzalka 192 for Plymouth, which could have used its fifth-best score Saturday – Ariana Strzalka’s 103 – and still come out a winner.
For individual champion Lily Pendy, the single word on the back of her shirt – “Fight” – said it all.
Pendy, a senior at Grosse Pointe South playing in her fourth MHSAA Finals, fought through the conditions and won medalist honors with a 74-76—150. The pink shirts Pendy and her teammates sported bore inspirational words in honor of breast cancer awareness month and had special meaning for Pendy, whose mother, Megan, just finished cancer treatment.
“It shows what we’re playing for,” Pendy said. “This is really exciting. I did it for my team and my coach and my parents. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
After posting a sixth-place Finals finish last year and helping her team win the team championship in 2011, Pendy figured the top individual spot was attainable.
“I hadn’t thought about it too much, but I had it in the back of my head,” she said.
Pendy’s 74 in the first round put her three strokes in front, and she finished six clear of the field.
“I felt pressure,” Pendy said about carrying the lead into the second round. “I was nervous. I’m not going to lie. But I tried to turn the nerves into excitement.”
Elayna Bowser of Dearborn took second with a pair of 78s for 156. Emily White of Saline matched Pendy for the second day’s best round of 76 and finished third overall at 157.
“I convinced myself that I like playing in the rain,” Pendy said. “You have to have a good attitude about it. I played steady golf, par golf most of the way.”
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PHOTOS: (Top) Plymouth players hoist the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship trophy for the second straight season. (Middle) A player launches an approach shot toward the green during Saturday's second round. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.)