Playing in a varsity state tournament for the very first time might be somewhat intimidating for a seventh-grader.
Not Emily St. Aubin.
The South Border standout played like a seasoned veteran in her Class B girls golf state tournament debut last year, putting together impressive rounds of 80 and 78 to capture medalist honors and lead the Mustangs to their first girls golf state championship.
St. Aubin, who attends junior high school in Ashley, was one of the youngest participants at Carrington’s CrossRoads Golf Club that week, but the rookie saw no reason to be intimidated.
“I sort of went into it thinking that I had nothing to lose. My attitude was ‘do your best and whatever happens, happens,'” she said. “I looked at it as a great experience, no matter where I finished. It was an opportunity to play in the biggest tournament of the year and go against the best golfers in the state. That experience alone would help me later on, I thought. It turned out that I had two of my best rounds of the year. It was so amazing. I couldn't believe it happened."
St. Aubin is back for her eighth-grade season this spring, but this time she’ll be the hunted.
“It’s definitely a different feeling this year. I know I surprised a lot of people last year, but now there are higher expectations,” she said. “But that’s OK. I don't really feel any added pressure. I can’t worry about what the other golfers are doing. I’m just going to focus on my own game and work on getting better.”
St. Aubin's 2017 campaign is off to a strong start. She took individual honors in a tournament at Ipswich, S.D., on April 8, carding an 81. She claimed another crown two days later in Milnor, finishing with an 80. The following day, she shot a 38 to win a nine-hole tournament at Eureka, S.D.
St. Aubin averaged “around 90 strokes" per tournament last year, but saved her best effort for the final week. She and Bethany Leier of Hazen were tied for first place after the first day, but her second-round 78 placed her five strokes ahead of Leier. St. Aubin's final round included 11 pars and two birdies. She also finished ahead of the defending state champion, Kaitlin Hubrig of Hankinson-Wyndmere-Lidgerwood-Fairmount-Campbell-Tintah.
“The state tournament is where you want to play your best, and that's how it played out for me,” she said. “I had a very good first round and that really helped ... it gave me confidence for the next day. I was tied for the lead and I knew I had to shoot an 80 or better to have a chance to win. I went in really focused and had another good day ... very steady, and not a lot of bogeys."
St. Aubin’s father and coach, Jeremy St. Aubin, introduced her to the sport of golf early. She said she started swinging a club at the age of two and hasn’t stopped.
“My dad got me interested. He loves the game and we’re not that far from the course, so we would spend a lot of time there,” St. Aubin said. “I’ve always had fun with it. It’s a great game, and it’s a great way to spend time with friends and family."
St. Aubin hones her skills during the offseason playing in various tournaments. Earlier this month, she had an opportunity to play in the Drive, Chip and Putt Championships in Augusta, Georgia, home of The Masters Tournament. One of 80 qualifiers from around the country competing in the ages 14-15 division, St. Aubin advanced by winning the region tournament in Hazeltine, Minn.
St. Aubin wound up finishing 10th at Augusta, but that was just one of many highlights.
“While I was on the driving range one day, (professional golfer) Jordan Spieth walked by and gave me a high five,” she said. “We also saw Dustin Johnson there and that was really cool. It was a great tournament to play in, but there are so many other things that I'm going to remember about that trip ... things I saw and people I met.”
Bad news for opponents. St. Aubin believes that she is a better golfer than she was last year.
“Chipping and driving are my strong points, but I wasn't really that good at putting last year. I’ve practiced a lot on that and I think I’ve gotten better,” she said. “I’ve also gotten stronger mentally. I’ve learned to put mistakes behind me and focus on the next hole. You can't let mistakes bother you."
St. Aubin is sure to be one of the favorites in this year's state tournament in Bismarck. Her team, meanwhile, will try to fill the vacancies left by the graduation of Morgan Gallagher and Brook Gilstad, who finished 18th (tie) and 43rd (tie), respectively, in last year's state tournament. In addition to St. Aubin, two other top-five golfers return for the Mustangs - juniors Madison Braaten (15th in the state tournament) and Rachel Rueb (41st). The rest of the South Border roster consists of another junior, a sophomore, a freshman and three other eighth-graders.
St. Aubin said the team has potential.
“We're pretty young and we have a lot of work to do, but we're all excited about this year. We're willing to work really hard to become a good team," she said. "We're going to try to improve each week, and hopefully by the end of the year, we'll surprise people."
Leier, last year's state runner-up, also returns. She's a senior.
In Class B boys golf, the top two finishers in the 2016 state tournament – Jake Preston of Hillsboro-Central Valley and Matt Rueb of South Border - graduated, but the third-place finisher, Joey Wagner of Heart River, is back. Wagner won medalist honors in 2015.