RED WING — What a difference one year makes. Eleven months ago Red Wing was celebrating a state tournament title won by its girls’ golf team, a fourth-place finish by its boys’ team, and individual titles won by Sophia Yoemans and Cecil Belisle. This year the teams had significant turnover with six seniors graduating as well as two new head coaches.
What remained was a group of young golfers ready to prove themselves. Discovering how the teams would perform under all of that change has to wait another year, however, as the spring season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Ready to take next step, golfers miss team bonding
Losing two Division 1 golfers from the girls’ team was going to be a difficult challenge, but head coach Peter Johnson didn’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle.
“Coming into this season from a state championship, there’s no question that the four returning definitely helped with that,” he said. “I think with the people we had returning, we would have had a decent shot at contending for a conference title this year.”
Red Wing was set to return seniors Sydney Flack, Grace Dube and Ashton Chandler. All three played a part in the state championship a year ago. Dube and Chandler also helped the team take third at state in 2018. Johnson touted the experience the senior group of golfers had.
“They’ve played in a lot of big tournaments … some high-end invites that were basically invite-only,” he said.
Although the seniors won’t have the chance to prove themselves one more time, they admitted that their accomplishments to this point have provided some solace to the abrupt ending of their season. Success isn’t purely measured in tournament wins or podium finishes; a large part of a student-athlete’s success can be measured in their growth from year one until that final day on campus. For Flack, that meant circling back to her first year with the golf team in eighth grade.
“Looking back to my eighth grade year, I never expected that I would be where I am today with the golf score that I have or the swing that I have,” she said. “It took a lot of work and a lot of practice but I’m very glad that I put that time in. Golf gets way more fun when you’re playing your best.”
Putting the time in. A sentiment shared by coaches as well as the golfers. Dube said she had to learn the game of golf in her first years, which led to rapid improvement.
“I lowered my score probably 10-20 strokes from the first year to the next year and the next,” Dube said.
The more practice golfers get on the course, the more they bond with their teammates as well. That aspect of the sport is what Dube and Flack said weighed heaviest on them — positively and negatively. As much as they think about the missed time being around the team and playing golf as friends, it also reminds them of the memories they’ve created.
“Car rides were super fun, they were long but it was fun just bonding with friends,” Dube said. “Also meeting other people because you are put with other teammates from other towns.”
Finding competition when there is none
Although the girls’ team was set to return four golfers this spring, the boys’ team only had two returnees — junior Will Ahrens and sophomore Denval Atkinson. With that much turnover, head coach Drew Olinger said he'd hoped to push the new golfers toward consistently hitting under the threshold of bogey golf.
“My goal was trying to find and guarantee four guys that could consistently break 90,” Olinger said. “I felt like if we could do that, there might be opportunities to move on within the section or have some individuals move on.”
Without a spring season, it will be on the golfers to hit the courses this summer to get in some practice. Olinger said some of the students have swing coaches, which should hasten their improvement. However, what concerns Olinger is the missed opportunity at competitions.
“It’s really easy to go out with buddies, have that 4-foot putt and you just give it to them,” he said. “Obviously the setting is different — a little bit more casual compared to a little bit more pressure in that high school season.”
Mississippi National allowed Red Wing High School golfers free access to the course until the end of May which Olinger hopes the young golfers took advantage of. A silver lining to distance learning he said, is that some golfers are taking advantage of being able to get their schoolwork done in the evening so they can hit the course earlier in the day.
While solo or small-group sessions are not the same as a traditional high school meet, students are able to improve their skills in the sport.
“Every time I’ve messaged the kids, I tell them to make sure they’re playing by the rules,” Olinger said. “It’s the only way they’re going to really progress, make the progress necessary.”