The Spring Lake girls golf team proved that a new coach and an unfamiliar team doesn’t sway champions, as they captured their fifth straight Division 3 regional title Thursday at Stonegate Golf Club.
The Lakers did it as they always do; capturing two of the top three finishes to come in at 356, 15 strokes ahead of second-place Big Rapids. Whitehall took home the final state-qualifying spot in third at 398.
Hannah Klein led the way with a first-place overall finish, carding a 77. Phoebe Saunders followed in third overall at 85. Alana Sprague turned in a 92, while Kate Galloway scratched a 102. Finally, Maggie Mahoney played to an alternate-score of 120.
“It was a little nerve-wracking for a little while,” Klein said. “Every time someone came in it was ‘Did you beat your girls (playing group)?’ When we were all in, we added the scores up, and I looked at Phoebe and said, ‘I think we won.’ I almost started crying.”
“It was the mental game that was working so well today,” said first-year head coach Alec Lininger. “They really zoned in and looked at today as an opportunity rather than a stressful situation.
“We rolled in to ‘Eye of the Tiger’ blasting into the parking lot. From the get-go, everyone was really excited to play and that can really carry you through a round.”
The mental edge was crucial on a 40-degree day at a difficult course east of Muskegon.
“We definitely wanted to stay out of trouble here,” Lininger said of Stonegate.“ We wanted to make sure if we missed, we were missing well, and to avoid penalties and they did a great job of that.”
“Keeping the ball in play is important here,” Klein said. “Especially on the front nine, there are a few sticky situations you can get in. When I played here last, I lost four balls. So, I said if I could keep the ball in play I will be fine. I don’t care if I’m short, I just don’t want to take any drops.”
The plan worked. Klein didn’t lose a ball all day. As each successful shot added to her confidence, things fell into place, making the cold and wind a near non-issue, though it never bothered the Spring Lake skiing star much.
“At the beginning of the round, a few of my irons were long because of the wind, but I was dressed really well, because of skiing I have great warm layers, so it didn’t bother me too much.
“My mental game was super strong which kind of made everything work. I was playing the Big Rapids No. 1 and we were tied at the turn, and I just didn’t want to lose. So, before every shot I told myself I knew how to hit this and kept hitting the ball straight, making putts, playing well. It really boosted my confidence and I finished even on the back.”
Evidence of Klein’s confidence came on the greens, where she marked just three three-putts for the round. Her score of 77 was no-doubt near the top of the list, but the rest of the Lakers following suit was a welcome sight for the senior.
“When I came in at 77, I basically knew I had it,” Klein said. “It is fun to win and go to state by yourself, but being able to go with my sisters is so much more fun.”
The sisterhood of this 2018 team took longer to develop than previous years, making this team-title all the sweeter.
“In years past, the team has been full of girls that grew up playing together,” Klein said. “This year that just wasn’t the case. It was a little awkward at the beginning, really. We just had to get to know each other. Now, we are singing in the van, having fun and making memories.”
“They just didn’t know each other very well because it was a younger group than we are used to having,” Lininger said. “It was an easy transition. When you start spending a lot of time with really nice people, you start to like each other. They are all so nice, it didn’t take long.”
Now fully gelled as a team, the Lakers get a chance to further continue their unprecedented run at the state tournament. But, much like their quest for a fifth-regional title, Spring Lake and their new coach aren’t sweating it.
“As a first-year coach, I never really wanted to worry about last year,” Lininger said. “But, knowing the history of this program, it is pretty cool to add to it.
“You just can’t worry about it, though. You have to stay present. The history is there, but like your last three golf holes, it happened, and you can’t do anything about it. All you can do is play the next hole.
“I think it is awesome that Spring Lake has been really good. That is cool, but this is our group. All you can control is what you are doing. What they did two years ago is awesome, but it doesn’t have a ton of effect on what we are doing.”
All that said, the Lakers haven’t finished outside of the top three at the state meet since 2012, with three titles and a pair of third-place finishes over the five-year span.
The tournament is scheduled to run Oct. 19-20 at Forest Akers East golf course on the campus of Michigan State University. The plan between now and then for Spring Lake includes lots of practice, something they haven’t gotten much of recently.
“We have more practice time in the next week than we have had in the last month,” Lininger said. “So that is really exciting we finally get to slow down a little bit.
“We are looking forward to it, again, as an opportunity rather than a stressful situation. If we do that we can score low again, and people can talk about our group as part of this history.”