For about 45 minutes, members of the Heart River boys golf team figured they had captured the 2016 Class B state championship.
They figured wrong.
The second-round scores from Heart River's and Kindred's top four first-round scorers were in, and the Cougars held a slim lead over the Vikings with no other challengers in the running for the team title. However, another Kindred golfer would later turn in a score that would break into his team's top four and put the Vikings ahead by one stroke. Final tally: Kindred 660, Heart River 661.
Heart River standout Joey Wagner remembers it well.
“We assumed that (the Vikings) would have the same top four scorers in the second round as they did in the first, but another guy put them over the top,” said Wagner, who recently graduated from South Heart High School. “It was tough. I mean, we were sitting in the clubhouse thinking that we had just won a state championship, but we wound up losing by a stroke and that was hard to deal with, too, because when you come up short like that, you think about all of the strokes you could have saved. It was a letdown, but second place is still a great accomplishment and we were happy about that. It also sort of lit a fire under those of us who were coming back this year. We felt we left something behind in Jamestown, but now we’re ready to come back and get it.”
Heart River’s top three golfers from last year – Wagner and juniors Jayden Ewoniuk and Trace Jacobson – returned this season and have the Cougars in a position to challenge again for the state championship today and Wednesday at Mandan’s Prairie West Golf Course. Wagner, Ewoniuk and Jacobson finished third, 14th and 20th, respectively, in the 2016 state tournament, and this season all three are averaging under 80 strokes per tournament. Wagner averages 71.7 strokes and has won medalist honors in five of the eight tournaments Heart River has played in. Ewoniuk and Jacobson average 76 strokes, and sophomore Jett Mattson 81. Jacobson was the medalist at the Region 5 tournament, finishing with a 78.
As a team, the Cougars have won eight tournament titles this season, averaging just under 310 strokes.
“We’re feeling good going into state. We believe we’ll be in the thick of it again,” said Wagner. “We’ve been very consistent this year. The only really tough day we had was at Bully Pulpit (near Medora) where we shot a 337. But it was really windy there and everyone had a rough go of it that day. Otherwise, we’ve been anywhere from the 290s to the low 310s. We’ve waited a long time for another opportunity and hopefully we’ll make the most of it in Mandan.”
Wagner will play in his sixth state tournament this week. He placed ninth as a seventh-grader, and after failing to achieve all-state status in 2013 and 2014, Wagner captured the individual crown in 2015. Last year, he placed third behind Jake Preston of Hillsboro-Central Valley and Matt Rueb of South Border. Was he disappointed? Not really.
“Golf is a weird sport. You can be on one tournament and off the next,” Wagner said. “It’s difficult to repeat because year after year there’s so much competition out there. Anybody can get hot at the right time, and last year, Jake Preston and Matt Rueb both put together great rounds. I made a good run at it and came up short, but that’s golf. I’m going to try again this week, and really all I'm hoping for is to play well enough to give my team a chance to win a state championship.”
Wagner practically grew up with a golf club in his hands. He lived a short distance from a golf course and took advantage of the opportunities.
“The course is where I would spend a lot of my spare time,” Wagner said. “I started really young and decided a long time ago that (golf) would be my sport. I love everything about it. It’s a challenging sport and I love challenges.”
Offseason work has paid off for Wagner.
“My summers are pretty booked with tournaments and other things related to golf,” he said. “I try to go to as many tournaments as I can, and learn as much as I can from the experts.”
Wagner has a solid all-around game, but he said his greatest strength might be his mental toughness.
“I try to focus on controlling everything I’m able to,” he said. “I can’t control the wind or the cold or the rain, or what the other golfers are doing, but I can control how I approach things mentally. My head needs to be in the right spot whenever I prepare for a shot, and I need to be ready to deal with all of the bad stuff that could happen. It isn’t going to be good all of the time. You have to block out the bad stuff and focus on how well you can play the next hole.”
Preston and Rueb graduated last year, but Wagner doesn’t want to hear any “favorite” talk this week.
“Just because the two guys who finished ahead of me aren’t there anymore doesn’t mean I’ll win this time,” he said. “I was the winner two years ago, but I wasn’t last year. There are no sure things. You never who’s going to step up. Two of my teammates (Ewoniuk and Jacobson) won tournaments this year, so I know they're capable of winning in Mandan. The way I look at it, my only opponent is the course at Prairie West. Nothing comes easy there … it can beat you up. If I play it well, I’ll be satisfied with whatever the outcome is.”
Wagner will take his talents to South Mountain Community College, a junior college in Phoenix, Ariz. He said he was offered full-ride scholarships from other colleges, but was drawn in by South Mountain’s reputation.
“It’s like a breeding ground for Division I golfers,” he said. “They’ve won national championship four of the last six years. Their coach is phenomenal, and their facilities are top of the line. I’m really excited to go, but before I do, I want to help my team win a state championship. It would be great for our program and our small communities (South Heart and Belfield).
Defending champion Kindred brings another solid team to Mandan this week. The Vikings carded a 311 in the Region 2 tournament, with Brock Benson taking medalist honors with a 74. Tioga, led by medalist Mitchell Fifer’s 73, captured the Region 6 title with a 314.
Other region medalists are Jamison Fettig of Napoleon-Gackle-Streeter (Region 1, 78), Sid Ullyott of Langdon Area-Edmore-Munich (Region 3, 78), and Brody Cahill of Northern Lights (Region 4, 76).
The Class B girls state tournament will be held today and Wednesday at Bismarck’s Tom O’Leary Golf Course.
South Border’s Emily St. Aubin, an eighth-grader, returns to defend her state championship. Last year, St. Aubin carded a two-day total of 158 (80-78) while leading the Mustangs to the team title.
St. Aubin won medalist honors in the 2017 Region 1 tournament, shooting a 79.
Fargo Oak Grove (Region 2) and Heart River (Region 5) posted the state’s lowest region postseason tournament scores – 359 and 366, respectively.
Lauren Cain of Oak Grove (Region 2, 83); Jayden Romfo of Langdon Area-EM (Region 3, 90); Hallie Counts of Dunseith (Region 4, 96); Bethany Leier of Hazen (Region 5, 77), and Hope Froshaug of New Town (Region 6, 91) are the other region medalists.
Leier finished second in last year’s state tournament.