By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Kristen Nolan is trying to avoid putting undue pressure on her Traverse City West golf team.
So talk about defending an MHSAA Division 1 championship has been kept to a minimum during the preseason.
“I don’t want my girls going into (the season) too confident because that can also be a negative,” the seventh-year coach said. “I want them focusing on individual goals instead of that full team goal of winning states again. As long as each player is working on their personal goals, the rest (will take care of itself).”
The unranked Titans pulled a surprise a year ago, edging first-day leader and tournament favorite Rochester in a tiebreaker to claim the Lower Peninsula D1 title.
Ironically, neither team had a senior in the lineup.
West returns its core group of Anika Dy, Hunter Kehoe, Grace Ellul, Madison McCall and Grace Warren. Dy, now a sophomore, finished runner-up for the individual title. She was one stroke back of medalist Julia Dean of Brighton.
Dy competed in an American Junior Golf Association tournament at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club this week and missed the Titans’ season-opening tournament, the Bob Lober Classic at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.
Dy missed a couple early tournaments last year as well, but when she returned to the lineup the Titans went on a roll, cruising to Big North Conference and Regional crowns en route to the MHSAA Finals championship.
“We got into a groove,” Ellul, a senior co-captain, said. “Hopefully, we can do the same this year.”
Most of the Titans spent considerable time on the links this summer, taking lessons and playing in several tournaments, notably in the Traverse City Junior Golf Association program.
“I highly encourage it,” Nolan said. “The girls love playing in it. It’s a little more low-key, not as competitive as high school golf, but it prepares them.”
Kehoe, also a senior co-captain, agreed.
“It allows us to focus and work on our games,” she said. “It’s a huge advantage coming into the fall.”
That focus has not shifted now that the high school campaign has arrived.
“We all have personal goals” Kehoe said. “Kristen does not want us to worry about going back to states and repeating what we did. She just wants us to work on our own games each and every tournament throughout the season.”
For Kehoe, who shot the Titans’ second-lowest score at the Finals last season, that means improving her approach to the game.
“I’m working on course management, really dialing in on target control,” the 17-year-old said. “I consistently shot 80 or low 80s last year. My goal is to be consistently in the 70s this year.”
Ellul, the Titans’ third-lowest scorer at the Finals, is stressing her mental outlook on the course.
“I get down on myself, get nervous, and it can ruin my game,” she said. “I need to learn to stay positive when I’m playing, not put myself down.”
Nobody was putting the Titans down last October when they rallied to win at The Meadows at Grand Valley State University.
West was in fourth place, five shots behind Rochester, after the opening day. But all five Titans golfers came back with lower rounds on the second day to give the school its first MHSAA girls golf title.
“Going into states our goal was top five,” Kehoe said. “We obviously knew there were a lot of good teams there. We did not expect to win it all. That was a huge surprise. It was amazing.”
After finishing their rounds, the Titans gathered in the clubhouse, away from the hubbub outside.
“We knew it was close,” Kehoe said. “All the parents were outside watching the scoreboard. We sat inside, too excited, too scared, to go outside and look.”
“It was nerve-wracking,” Ellul added. “We were trying to not get our hopes up, but we had to. When we found out we had won, it was crazy.”
Kehoe’s younger brother, Murphy, is the one who informed the team of its triumph.
“We walked out and immediately started crying and hugging our parents,” Kehoe recalled. “It was super surreal.”
How close was it? West and Rochester tied at 685, forcing officials to go to each team’s fifth golfer’s score over the tournament. Warren’s two-day 193 beat her rival’s to give West the title.
It kicked off a celebration that spilled over into the weekend and the following Monday at school when all of West’s sports teams held a reception for the champs in the school’s common area.
The team later custom-designed their own championship rings, which were presented at halftime of a boys basketball game.
“Thinking back on it, you forget how crazy it is to win the Division 1 state finals,” Ellul said. “Our school, and town, were so proud and supportive of us. They made it such a big deal. That was really nice.”
The Titans know they will not be able to take any team by surprise this season.
“Obviously, all eyes are on us,” Kehoe said. “We’ve been working hard this summer trying to improve our games. Our confidence is through the roof, but we’re all trying to maintain a calm, steady mindset so we don’t get too excited.”
Nolan likes what she has seen thus far.
“They definitely have that drive to try and win back-to back-state championships,” she said. “They’re definitely more eager. They’ve been putting in quite a bit of effort to get there.”
First things first, however.
“We can’t worry about an end-of-the-season result right now,” Kehoe said.
There’s work to be done.
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City West hoists for the first time Oct. 17 its first MHSAA girls golf championship trophy. (Middle) Anika Dy lines up a putt during last season's Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)