All roads for high school golfers lead to Grand Forks this week.
But, the Class A girls golf title likely goes through Bismarck.
St. Mary’s, the defending Class A champion, looks to bounce back from an upset loss to Century in last week’s West Region tournament. The Saints and Patriots own the top two scoring averages in the state.
St. Mary’s brings a seasoned squad to King’s Walk, the course designed by Arnold Palmer's company. Like The King, the Saints boast their own brand of star power.
In seniors Sydney Smith and Tonya Dvorak, along with junior Gabby Easton, St. Mary’s has three of the top five players in the West Region. Smith, looking to repeat as Class A individual champion, knew it’d be a challenging year wearing the bull’s eye.
“We had high expectations for ourselves, but yeah, you do feel pressure because of what we did last year and obviously we want to do it again,” said Smith, who will continue her career at UND next year. “We’ve tried to not focus on that. We just work as hard as we can and try to improve and not worry about the other stuff.”
St. Mary’s has won seven of the nine tournaments it has played in this season. Smith ranks No. 3 in the state in scoring average (78.43). Dvorak, who has signed to play basketball at the University of Mary, ranks fourth (79.14). Only Morgan Hetletved (77.13) and Century seventh-grader Leah Herbel (78.0) are ahead of the Saints’ dynamic duo.
Before joining forces to lead St. Mary’s to its first state title in any girls sport last fall, Smith played for Century, while Dvorak was a Demon. Both have been varsity regulars since they were eighth-graders. Smith was on Century's 2013 state championship team. Dvorak did the same one year later for Bismarck High. Down to their final high school tournament, reflections on their accomplishments will come later.
“This is a unique opportunity to win it back-to-back. This is what we’ve been working for,” Dvorak said. “We just have to trust the process and play to our strengths.”
There are many of those, most notably ball-striking, said coach Nathan Herzog. Although their success goes beyond the Xs and Os.
“All of the girls would take a team championship over winning it individually” Herzog said. “It’s not like one or two of them is out there for themselves. They care about their teammates and want them to do well.”
Easton (80.71) gives the Saints three players that rank in the top 10 in scoring average in the state. No team can match their depth. Abby Schmidt (87.1) gives St. Mary’s four players averaging in the 80s, while Cameron Easton has scored in the 80s in her last five tournaments. Kate Mongeon also is capable of scoring in the 80s.
“We have a very talented team, some more than others due to experience, but we’re very fortunate to have as many quality players as we do,” said Herzog, who believes the team is yet to peak despite a scoring average of 329.9, 15 shots better than last year.
“I definitely believe we can still play better,” said Herzog, who credited assistant coach Scott Bergan for his familiarity with the players. “We haven’t had a tournament where everything clicked. Obviously, that’s very hard to do in golf, but we’ve seen it in practice at times where things look really good.”
Having a talented duo at the top makes any lineup look strong. For Smith, the West Region Senior Athlete of the Year, it almost didn’t happen.
“I didn’t like golf right away. I’m a very impatient person naturally and that doesn’t really fit very well with being a good golfer,” she said. “But my parents made me keep doing it. Pretty much everybody in my family golfs.”
Clearly, mom and dad knew best as she looks to become only the seventh repeat champion in state history.
“That’s my goal, and the goal for our team too, but it’s really hard to do and it doesn’t always work out,” said Smith, who considers her short game her strength. “Going into any tournament you want to win, but if I play well and it doesn’t work out, that’s OK.”
Dvorak, who Herzog said has “stepped up the most this season,” is confident her team will be at their best.
“We’re really excited. The last tournament didn’t go quite as well as we had hoped, but we have another chance in the biggest tournament,” she said. “We just have to stay relaxed and try to make as many birdies as we can.”
Herzog has a simple message for his team.
“Stay calm. Really, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “Just stay calm and let your natural talents take over. If they do that, I’m confident things will go very well.”