By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
GRAND RAPIDS – A familiar name is once again among the qualifiers for this weekend’s MHSAA Division 3 Girls Golf Finals.
Grand Rapids South Christian has made annual appearances in the season-ending event and put together quite an impressive streak.
The Sailors claimed a Regional title last Wednesday and punched their ticket to the Finals for the 23rd consecutive year.
“We’ve been able to go to state for a lot of years, and that’s been awesome,” South Christian’s No. 1 player, senior Natalie Samdal said. “We take a lot of pride in the fact that no matter who is on the team we’ve worked really hard to achieve the goal of going to state.”
South Christian, which won Division 3 championships in 2007 and 2009 and has finished runner-up six times, will play at Michigan State’s Forest Akers East Golf Course on Friday and Saturday.
The Sailors placed runner-up to Macomb Lutheran North a year ago by a mere three strokes and should be in the mix again with a veteran lineup consisting of four who competed in the Finals last season: Samdal, seniors Ashley Keen and Sara VanSolkema and junior Maddie Wieringa.
VanSolkema suffered a slight knee ligament tear at Regionals and didn’t play. She’s expected to return for the Finals.
“We have a lot of returning girls from last year, and they’ve played well,” South Christian coach Ben Cook said. “Natalie is our best player and has played a lot of tournament golf, and Ashley put a lot of time in this summer and has improved a lot. Those two have led us this season.”
The Sailors, whose top five also includes sophomore Kate Hoekwater, have similar expectations for success at the Finals this year as well, although the field is filled with several talented teams.
“Last year I would’ve been disappointed if we didn’t finish in the top five, and our goal going in was to shoot around 700 and we shot exactly 700 – so that was pretty cool,” Cook said. “Obviously we would like to finish one place higher this year, but we know the competition is tough. I think we’re one of the top teams, and we will see how it plays out.”
Keen said it was important to advance to the Finals again despite key graduation losses.
“It’s a big deal for us, and we’re excited to be going again,” she said. “We were a little nervous because we lost two very good players that graduated, but I’m proud to say that we made it again.
“This is my third year on varsity, and I want this to be the best ending in a good way. It was tough being so close last year, and it would be cool if we won because we’ve put a lot of work in.”
The team also received a congratulatory tweet from another sport at the school after winning its Regional.
The football team made a short video and posted it on social media.
“I thought that was pretty cool, and I wasn’t expecting that,” Keen said. “Golf doesn’t get a lot of credit from other sports, so that was a surprise to me. I liked it, and they just congratulated us on winning Regionals and told us good luck at state.”
Samdal has been the catalyst in the program’s ability to remain consistent. As a four-year performer, she’s dropped her scores steadily and been among the Grand Rapids area’s best.
She tied for third individually at last season’s Final and will play golf next year at Davenport University.
“She’s improved every year and is a solid player all the way around,” Cook said. “She’s tough mentally as well and wants to do well. She’s driven that way.”
Samdal is vocally talented, too, and is part of the choir program at South Christian. She said both pursuits help bring out the best in her.
“I’ve been singing my whole life, and both choir and golf take a lot of practice and hard work,” said Samdal, who joined her choir in singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at an NCAA Division III basketball game. “You can’t just jump right to it. You have to work at it.”
The forecast for the weekend isn’t expected to be ideal for golf, but the Sailors are determined to conquer the elements.
“We played a practice round last weekend and that helped, but our team will fight through the cold or rain or whatever it throws at us,” Samdal said.
She is looking forward to her final high school tournament.
“I’m going to miss high school golf, but part of me is excited for college golf as well,” she said. “I don’t think it will be as emotional as it would be if I wasn’t playing more, but it will be bittersweet.
“I think we have the potential to be in the top five as a team, and possibly the top three. We will see how well we can do.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) South Christian’s girls golf team poses with its latest Regional championship trophy, won last Wednesday. (Middle) Natalie Samdal tees off during last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final. (Top photo courtesy of South Christian’s athletic department; middle by HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)