By Mike Deak
KENDALLVILLE – It has been said before about golf, but the narrative remains: the tournament is really up for grabs.
While most will concede this Saturday’s East Noble Girls Golf Regional is defending state champion Homestead’s to lose, not many know who else will join Homestead in the trip to the IHSAA State Finals.
Homestead shot a mind-numbing 300 at Timber Ridge to blow away the Norwell Sectional, led by Madison Dabagia’s medalist 71. All four Spartans were under 80, it’s fifth score an 81, which will put pressure on anyone challenging for the top spot at Noble Hawk.
From there, five other sectional champions filter into the 18-team field, including Warsaw Sectional champion NorthWood, along with fellow Northern Lakes Conference club Concord, Penn, Fremont and Oak Hill. The Panthers and Minutemen are among those looking to challenge for one of the three qualifying spots, Concord with three head-to-head wins over NorthWood this season, two in 18-hole matchups. Penn also comes in as a program with a lot of historical experience in the state tournament, setting up what should be a big battle for the golden tickets.
“We are very excited about the position we’re in,” said NorthWood head coach Adam Yoder. “There has been so much adversity that our group has gone through over the last eight months, and they’ve handled that so professionally. So here we are, with a shot to go to state. It’s basically everyone fighting for two spots, because Homestead is going to be in the top three, if not win going away. We played Noble Hawk each of the last two Mondays, so our young team should have some comfortability out there.
“However, in the end, you have to keep in play at NobleHawk, set yourself up with the proper angles into certain greens, and put the ball on the proper level in the green complexes. We’re going to have to shoot our season low in comparison to par to advance, and we’ve done that before on this course, several times. If we can find a way to get into the 320’s, which we’re certainly capable of, I like our chances.”
NorthWood has been led by its top two in Cybil Stillson and Breanna Goss. The juniors have been consistently near the top of the leaderboards, evident at the sectional as they were one-two, Stillson shooting a 76 and Goss an 81. The week before, Stillson shot a 76 and Goss a 77 at the NLC Championships.
If Stillson and Goss play as normal, Wood will have to get a low number from a combination of Abbie Richner, Riley Kitson and either/or Kira Schrock or Bella Sechrist.
Locally, Warsaw and Tippecanoe Valley are also active for the regional. The Tigers were 45 shots behind NorthWood at the sectional played on its home Stonehenge course, but a potentially full roster could sneak the Tigers into the conversation. In recent weeks, both Delaney Byron and Olivia Robinson-Gay have missed tournament play because of injuries. If coach David James can get them both back in the lineup, the Tiger fortunes could change for the better.
“We know what we’re up against, at least with the advantage of having upperclassmen who have the experience of being there in a regional tournament,” James said. “Going into it, Olivia has never played there, Abigail (Davis) both as freshmen, haven’t played there, but my other four have. It’ll be a challenge, we’re just waiting to see how we address that challenge.”
Playing the role of “happy to be here” will be Tippecanoe Valley. The Vikings come in having won the Three Rivers Conference championship, then slipping into the regional in third place at Saturday’s Warsaw sectional. Valley’s program has only been to a regional once in 1989, which has coach Thadd Mellott’s team excited to be making a slice of history. Putting woes at the sectional, though, have tempered his optimism as his elation Saturday was also mixed with a dose of reality.
“I’m just telling my kids this week that we are gaining experience,” Mellott said. “Our team is full of sophomores. We have to use this as a stepping stone and do the best we can. We have to just enjoy and embrace the moment.”
Concord has been fairly steady this season, its top five generally playing within a few strokes of one another. Belle Brunner and Brooke Watson have led the team all season at the top, but the play of Gracie Tucker and Evelyn Theinert have produced the team’s first outright NLC title as well as its second sectional championship.
Wawasee’s Taylor Cripe will also take her cuts at the regional, earning an individual spot after shooting an 89 at Stonehenge. She will be joined on the singles list by Rochester’s sister duo of Kristianna and Karah Lingenfelter. Lakeland’s Madison Keil and Northridge’s Karisa Dyer are also working as individuals.
Play at Noble Hawk is expected to begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The top three teams and top five individuals not on an advancing team will qualify for the IHSAA State Finals set for next Friday and Saturday in Carmel.