By Mike Deak
WARSAW – It happens every year and this year is no different, golf’s postseason is already here.
The InkFreeNews coverage teams are all coming together this Saturday among a competitive eight-team field at Stonehenge Golf Club for the Warsaw Girls Golf Sectional.
NorthWood will play the course with the targets squarely on its backs, winners of the past three sectional titles and five of the last seven. The No. 16-ranked Panthers enter the tournament as the Northern Lakes Conference champions, having run the table in the round robin at 7-0 and then topping Plymouth by 16 strokes at last weekend’s tournament at Bent Oak.
No stranger to sustained success in the tournament, NorthWood is looking to qualify for its 13th regional in the past 14 years. Additionally, Panther senior Cybil Stillson is also looking to add notches to her personal belt. Stillson is seeking her third consecutive sectional title after winning her fourth straight NLC title last weekend.
NorthWood isn’t just Stillson, as it has enjoyed the consistent and solid play from Indiana Wesleyan-bound Breanna Goss, who tied for fifth at the NLC Championships and is a three-year state qualifier. Riley Kitson has emerged as a very good No. 3 for coach Adam Yoder’s lineup, and the duo of Kira Schrock and Bella Sechrist have weathered some ups and downs but have kept NorthWood among the elite throughout the year.
“I don’t think our kids are intimidated by any setting, tournament or otherwise,” Yoder said. “It’s a credit to our athletic administration as they are willing to send us all over the state. We’ve played against everybody, played different styles and the best players. You want to play in fields of 90 players, so you understand what it takes to grind out a top 10 score. For the sectional, we are very clear on what we need to do in terms of handling ourselves in tournament settings. And admittedly, it’s been a little dicey at times for us if you look at the scores. But we seem to have the right mental game at the right time.”
If anyone is equipped to unseat NorthWood as defending champion, its the host Warsaw Tigers. Warsaw does have one win over the Panthers in a two-stroke advantage at the Broncho Invite, but that flipped in a big way as Warsaw was 22 strokes back of NorthWood last weekend at the NLC.
At the beginning of the season, Warsaw head coach David James had no idea he would see the precipitous rise in his roster, specifically with sophomore Olivia Robinson-Gay taking over the No. 1 spot and finishing third in the NLC tournament. Robinson-Gay will be paired with Stillson and Plymouth’s Annastasia Hutchings in a repeat pairing from the conference championship. Also in the role of phoenix for Warsaw is freshman Abbey Peterson, who before August had never played competitive golf but worked her way to the No. 3 spot on the team by the postseason.
Warsaw also has experience with Marie Frazzetta and Delaney Byron, and sophomore Abigail Davis has also showed marked improvement over the course of the fall.
“I think there’s more expectation playing on our home course, certainly,” James said. “You should know the course, know where the trouble is, know where the advantages are. You know what’s around every corner. But then again, you are playing for yourself. And that’s always up to the individual. We can study and practice all we want, but it’s up to each player to perform. We might gain a stroke or two from course knowledge, but it’ll take more than that to get any sight of a championship.”
Plymouth will also push among the contenders, frontlined with Hutchings and Elaina McDonald, both All-NLC performers. Plymouth finished runner-up in the NLC, but have been relatively consistent in its varsity five, which will force NorthWood and Warsaw to avoid major blowups.
One of the darkhorse contenders for a regional spot is Tippecanoe Valley. In 2020, Valley celebrated like it was 1989, earning its first regional berth in 31 years. The Vikings have been on the ascent since last September, setting the nine-hole school record earlier this season, and finishing second at the Three Rivers Conference Championships last weekend. Valley will send out all five of its regional competitors from a season ago in Madelyn Weaver, Molly Moriarty, Kaydence Mellott, Lily Ault and Cheney Canada.
Wawasee will also take its cuts. Headlining the Warriors is Taylor Cripe, who is a 2020 regional qualifier and a 2021 All-NLC performer. Cripe had more than a half-dozen medalist honors this fall and has a legitimate chance at advancing if Wawasee doesn’t take one of the team spots. Also swinging for the Warriors include Rylee Firestone, Morgan Reel, Ayla Torres and either Izy Losee or Delaney Delagrange.
Bremen, the last team to knock NorthWood from the team pedestal in 2017, will also be in the fray, along with Whitko and Rochester.
Bremen and Whitko will start the tournament at 11 a.m. from the No. 1 tee; the group of Tippecanoe Valley, Rochester and Wawasee opening play at 11:50 a.m.; and NorthWood, Plymouth and Warsaw fives start at 12:40 p.m.
The top three teams and top three golfers from a team not advancing move to the East Noble Regional at Noble Hawk on Sept. 25.