LAKE CITY — Abby Ebert spotted it long before many others.

Ebert saw the drive, the ingrained competitive nature that Ava Wallerich had from a young age.

“She’s super competitive,” Ebert said, “and she inspires everyone else around her to compete at a higher level. … She’s the definition of grit.”

That’s what’s made it so difficult this spring for Ebert and Steve Randgaard, the high school girls golf coaches at Lake City. The Tigers were loaded with talent and were the odds-on favorite to win the Section 1AA championship and contend for a state championship.

Wallerich and Marah Rothgarn — the Tigers’ only seniors — were expected to lead the way. Wallerich had her eyes not only on a team state championship, but individual medalist honors, as well. She qualified for the state meet each of the past four years and improved her finish each time, from 15th place as an eighth-grader to 10th as a freshman, seventh as a sophomore and fifth last year as a junior.

But Wallerich and the Tigers won’t get the chance to bring a state championship home in 2020, as the spring sports season has been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely a hard pill to swallow,” Ebert said. “She had a lot of high hopes for this season. … Not seeing her end her career walking down 18 at the Ridges at Sand Creek in Jordan, at the state meet, will be hard.”

Taking the next step

Wallerich won’t stray far from the golf course. She works at The Jewel in Lake City and when she’s not working for the course, she’ll be working on her game on the course.

Though she doesn’t have a high school season to gear up for, her career will continue in the fall, when she heads to Minnesota State University, Mankato, to play for the Mavericks, who have won three Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championships in the past five years.

The “grit” that Wallerich’s high school coaches love about her will translate well to the college game.

“She’s so strong mentally, a three-sport athlete who has seen these (pressure) situations more than once,” said Randgaard, who has coached Wallerich since she joined the Tigers’ varsity as a seventh-grader. “She’s been in a lot of critical situations and knows how to play under pressure.”

Wallerich has played in eight state tournaments throughout her high school career, qualifying four times each for the state golf meet and the state tennis meet. She was also a leader on the Tigers’ girls basketball team that went 22-6 and earned the No. 2 seed in the Section 1AA playoffs in February.

“Being a three-sport athlete has definitely shaped my golf game,” she said. “I never really have a break between seasons, so I’m always pushing myself to be better. The best thing is I get to work with three different coaches and I’ve learned so much from each one of them.”

Wallerich has left her mark on the Lake City golf record book. She set a school record for lowest 18-hole score last spring when she fired a 5-under par 66 at Pine Island. She finished her junior season with a 77.1 strokes per 18 holes average, which was just off the school-record average of 76.7 she set as a sophomore.

“Starting from a young age I was exposed to older athletes,” she said. “I was always practicing with my older sister (Lidia) and we were raised by both of our parents (Bruce and Trissa) to be mentally tough. We were never given anything. You had to work and prove yourself for it.”

‘She's never afraid’

Long-time Red Wing coach Mark Herzog, who retired after leading the Wingers to their sixth state title last season, approached Randgaard after a meet last May. Herzog had watched Wallerich play in a group with Wingers’ senior Sophia Yoemans, who closed her career as a three-time state medalist and now plays at the University of Missouri.

“He was so impressed when Ava played against Sophia,” Randgaard said. “Ava would take on that challenge. Many kids might crumble when playing against Sophia, but Ava would always give Sophia a good battle. She’s not afraid.”

Ebert agreed, noting that tough competition has always brought out the best in Wallerich.

“She rises above everything,” Ebert said. “If I were to place her in a group with the No. 1 player in the nation, Ava’s ability would rise. She wouldn’t get scared. She’d grit her teeth and ride out the round, right down until the last ball dropped in the cup on the 18th hole.

“Her mental toughness is her biggest strength.”

Wallerich’s coaches say her 3.94 GPA in the classroom is even further evidence of her competitive edge. She wants to be the best at whatever she’s doing. That mental toughness has helped Wallerich immensely throughout the past two months, from the Tigers’ basketball season ending abruptly with an upset loss in the section quarterfinals to the golf season being called off, to having to finish her senior year of high school doing her school work from home.

“The day the season was canceled, it hit me really hard,” Wallerich said. “I have such close relationships with the coaches. My bond with coach Ebert is unbreakable. I’ve known her since I was little and I won’t get to have maybe my best season ever with her.

“I had a tough time for one day, but I knew I couldn’t dwell on it, knowing that everyone is going through the same thing.”