In 30 years of covering Elkhart County area high school sports, I’ve never sat back and eased into a column by writing about the part-time No. 5 player on a high school girls golf squad.
I will break par and do so today.
Kayla Stankovich had never touched a golf club when she joined the NorthWood High School’s squad three summers ago.
“I think she came in and couldn’t get the ball in the air those first two weeks ... pretty much her whole freshman year,” coach Adam Yoder said.
Now Stankovich and her Lady Panther teammates are packing up their clubs for the IHSAA State Finals Friday, Oct. 4, in Franklin.
Never in her wildest imagination did Stankovich ever think she’d be teeing up a ball for a chance at a team state championship.
“No way,” she said. “I started late as a freshman, two weeks after everyone else. Almost my entire freshman year it was pretty much about making contact.”
NorthWood’s tour of northern Indiana courses is impressive on many levels, but its roster makeup is fascinating.
The teams boasts a top-flight talent in senior Heidi Morganthaler, who Yoder describes as one of the best ball-strikers in Indiana.
There’s the “next superstar,” according to Yoder, in sophomore Linnzie Richner, and a small-in-stature, but big-on-toughness freshman named Summer Stillson.
The lineup also includes a junior in Rachel Beebe who next year could become the school’s first four-time regional qualifier. Then comes Stankovich and another sophomore, Baillee Richner, who will split duties for the 36-hole weekend at The Legends.
It’s far from your typical collection of groomed, country club-bred athletes who began private lessons when they were 10 years old. But NorthWood’s girls did learn their own lesson while competing against the elite of the elite in Indiana — namely three-time state champion and No. 1-ranked Penn.
“We played eight tournaments in the week and a half before school started,” Yoder said. “I felt like if we really wanted to make the next step, we had to travel more, increase our schedule a little more early in the year.”
During those eight invitationals, the Panthers walked fairways and lined up putts with the Penns, the Floyd Centrals and Martinsvilles of the world — perennial state qualifiers.
And what Yoder and his girls discovered was they could run with the big dogs. They might not have won then, and likely won’t at state, but NorthWood wasn’t too far off the pace.
Morganthaler, who fired a 3-over 75 in the regional, remembered thinking as a freshman, “These girls are really good. How can we compete with them?”
The Panthers surveyed the landscape, checked the wind and came to the conclusion that they have nothing to fear.
“In the beginning of the year when we played with the schools that were really good, you kind of got used to playing with people that can beat you,” Morganthaler said. “So when it comes down to going to state, everyone there is good and that doesn’t scare you as badly.
“We know what good looks like.”
After the tough early-season rounds, Yoder said conversation among the girls began in earnest about a state bid. Now that the Panthers have their tee times secured, the next goal is not to finish 15th in the 15-team field.
“We made it a goal, as a joke, not to finish last,” Yoder said. “We said, ‘Let’s finish 14th or better.’”
“Such a high goal,” Morganthaler said with a laugh as she watched her teammates chip and putt at McCormick Golf Course. “He came up with that, but we also talked about how cool it would be to be top 10.”
“From the beginning, they were talking about it. I don’t know if they believed it or not, but they had a vision that they could do this,” Yoder said. “As the weeks have gone on, the expectations have gotten higher. We’ll be there for three days so we might as well give it our best shot.”
Yoder referred to his Panthers as “an amazing group of girls” and a trip to the state championships — in girls golf of all sports — is quite the accomplishment for a school the size of NorthWood.
Maybe it’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment, maybe it’s the start of bigger journeys.
Either way, it’s a day to grip it, rip it and enjoy it.
Bill Beck is The Elkhart Truth sports editor. Contact him on Twitter @BillBeckTruth or email to email@example.com
State Girls Golf
IHSAA State Finals
Friday & Saturday, Oct. 4-5, 8:30 a.m.
(At The Legends Golf Club, Franklin)
Area teams: No. 1-ranked Penn (Sr. Kari Bellville, Sr. Katie Willenbrink, Sr. Emily Song, Sr. Madison Chestnutt, So. Cassidy Jurkaites), honorable mention NorthWood (Sr. Heidi Morganthaler, So. Linnzie Richner, Fr. Summer Stillson, Jr. Rachel Beebe, Sr. Kayla Stankovich).
No cut: Weather permitting, all teams and individuals will play two 18-hole rounds.
Live stats online: http://www.golfstatresults.com/public/index.cfm?tournament_id=4973
Admission: $12 (good for both days).