By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BRIGHTON – When Paul Parsell considers what each of his players brings to the Brighton girls golf program, he can’t help but think about the food.
The Bulldogs’ moms have fed the team incredibly well this season, and that contribution isn’t lost on the sixth-year coach.
The right ingredients make the difference – and it just so happens these moms are fueling what could end up the most accomplished team in Brighton golf’s storied history.
This season’s team is an interesting mix of veterans, newcomers, phenoms and self-made standouts. And the Bulldogs hope it’s a winner as they try to cook up their first MHSAA championship beginning Friday with the first round of the Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final at The Meadows at Grand Valley State University.
Brighton has never finished among the top two at an MHSAA Final, but enters this weekend having won all but two of its events and ranked No. 3 in the final LP Division 1 coaches poll.
“It was very fun to see it all come together," said Allie Erkkila, the lineup’s lone senior.
"Our skills are up to par. It's just up to our mental game. Our team is very close, and I think that if we keep a level mindset, we can do our personal best."
Erkkila’s perspective is a unique one on a team filled with them. Start with the top seven players.
There’s the veteran: Brighton finished fifth in Division 1 in 2012 and 12th in 2013, but didn't make last year's MHSAA Final. Erkkila is the only member of the team who has played in the final tournament of the high school season – she was in the lineup for the first round in 2013.
And the athlete: Now-sophomore Heather Fortushniak joined the lineup last season and shot the team’s second-lowest regional core. She’s the team’s best all-around athlete; she played hockey and tackle football growing up and also plays basketball at Brighton. This fall she’s become a more polished golfer, giving the team a strong third player behind a top two that can match any in the state.
The next in line: Freshman Annie Pietila is the middle daughter of five of what could be considered Brighton’s first family of golf. Her older sisters Hannah and Emmie both play at the University of Tennessee and were regulars among the top 10 at their MHSAA Finals. In Annie’s high school debut, at the Traverse City Central Invitational in August, she set Brighton’s school record for 18 holes with a 68.
The standout who gave high school a try: Pietila’s score was tied a week later by a player also making her high school debut. Junior Julia Dean was a veteran of the American Junior Golf Association and already has committed to play collegiately at the University of Baylor. She said she’d always wanted to play on the high school team too, but couldn’t make it work with her schedule. This fall, she could – and joined the team a week in, shooting her 68 to win Brighton’s Coach Miller Invitational.
The elite gymnast: Freshman Autumn Blaney had ascended to Level 10 as a club gymnast before deciding to give golf a try, and that competitiveness has transferred over to a sport she’s played for only six months. Blaney has improved so quickly the Bulldogs used her 84 at their Regional.
And don’t forget 6 and 7: Sophomores Sophia Lowe and Emme Darkowski came to tryouts a year ago shooting in the 120s. Their averages have fallen into the low 90s and they’re pushing hard enough to make the lineup that Blaney had to defeat them in a nine-hole match last week to earn the fifth spot at the Regional.
They lead the way: Parsell has four children ages 6 down to 1 who easily could’ve been reasons for him to step away from the program – if he didn’t consider the team an extension of his family and his oldest hadn't been hanging out at practices since he was 18 months old. A major help has been the addition of assistant Jimmy Dewling, a former Brighton standout who played at Michigan State and returned to coach last fall. During matches they focus on golf-related things like course management. But just as important is the team bonding they foster to make the blend just right.
Dean averages 71 strokes for 18 holes, Pietila 79 and Fortushniak 84. Although maybe not this formidable, the Bulldogs have had similar strength at the top in the past – along with the older Pietilas, Jennica Long is a freshman playing at Florida Atlantic and Nicole Meyer plays at Hope College and three days ago was named Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Women’s Golfer of the Week.
But the biggest difference in this title hunt could be the players carding the fourth and fifth scores.
“What’s shown up for us is the growth of our program. We have really seven golfers that can play, and our five, six, seven probably could be top five for a lot of teams,” Parsell said. “I know a lot of teams out there struggle at four and five, and even three. To have that on our team makes it more competitive. They’re battling for position. You usually do that in college. We’re doing that here.”
And doing so together, which makes this a different and worthwhile experience for players like Dean and Pietila who were used to golf as an entirely individual sport.
“It’s been cool to have that camaraderie with the team and travel with the team, and everything is more of a team effort, which I really like and enjoy,” Dean said. “It’s different in golf; you’re not out there helping your own team. But it just motivates you to do that much better because you’re playing for your team.”
Brighton finished sixth at that Traverse City Central tournament before she joined. But the Bulldogs then won all of their matches and tournaments until the Oct. 1 Kensington Lakes Activities Association final at Pontiac Country Club, where they shot 345 to finish third – seven strokes back of No. 7 Plymouth and one back of Division 2 No. 4 South Lyon. Brighton came back a week later and won its Regional with a 317, 10 strokes better than No. 4 Novi.
The late Bill Miller laid much of the program's foundation during 28 seasons before he died in 2009. Parsell said he's worked to build on Miller's work, taking a top-10 team to one that can contend annually among the top three.
The Bulldogs made runs at the top with Annie Pietila's older sisters, who have visited practices twice this season and continue to cheer on the team as it goes for the ultimate accomplishment.
“They still love the team and they love the coach. They didn’t have a season quite like this, but they had good seasons too,” Annie Pietila said. “They think it’s great I get to experience this.”
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at Geoff@mhsaa.com with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brighton’s varsity golfers, from left, Autumn Blaney, Heather Fortushniak, Annie Pietila, Julia Dean, Allie Erkkila, Sophia Lowe, Sydnee Ellingson and Emme Darkowski. (Middle) The players pose with their regional trophy, coaches Jimmy Dewling (left) and Paul Parsell (right). (Photos courtesy of Brighton girls golf program.)