Published: 1:00 pm, Wed. May. 11th, 2016Updated: 3:29 pm
What would a program’s first-ever state championship be without a little suspense?
Trailing St. Pius by five shots after one round of play Monday at the Class 5A State Tournament at Pinon Hills in Farmington, the Lady Bulldog golf team had a decision to make.
“We had a team meeting and just decided, ‘We can do this,’” Artesia High School girls’ golf coach Dusty Bean said today. “‘We can come back.’ We didn’t play real well the first day, definitely not as good as we wanted to. So we started the day Tuesday knowing we played better on the back nine. We thought, ‘If we can get it back through that front nine, we can keep it the rest of the way.’”
Get it back they did, and in dramatic fashion.
In high school golf, it is a violation of the rules for one player to ask another for advice on equipment or strategy. On one of the front-nine holes, a St. Pius player made the mistake of asking for a club suggestion from a teammate. The teammate made the added mistake of answering – a four-stroke total penalty for the Lady Sartans.
“All of a sudden, we go from six shots down to two shots down,” said Bean.
The Artesia girls’ deficit increased to four going into No. 17, but the squad shot a two-over par on the hole to St. Pius’ five-over. That placed them a single stroke behind the Sartans going into No. 18, where season standout Josey Jackson edged Pius’ Ashley Garrett by a shot to force a tie and a one-hole playoff for the blue trophy.
“It was amazing,” said Bean. “Our girls played the two hardest holes on the golf course better than anybody in the field, and that got us into the playoff.”
The dreaded playoff has been known to shred the nerves of even the sport’s finest professionals. But the Lady ‘Dogs knew the lay of the land. Just a week prior, they edged Goddard in a 10-player shootout for the District 4-AAAAA championship in Lovington.
“I stood on the playoff tee box with all the girls, and I said, ‘Girls, look, we’ve been here before, this is how we won district. We know how to do this,’” Bean said. “They had the confidence.”
The Lady Bulldogs deposited five tee shots in the fairway to Pius’ two, and from there, their path to Artesia girls’ golf’s inaugural state title was clear. They took the playoff by a score of 21-25.
“We’re on Cloud 9 right now,” said Bean. “We’re just living it up. It was such an amazing experience. St. Pius is a great team. They’re all sophomore and freshmen, and we have two juniors, a sophomore, a freshman, and an eighth-grader. So we’re going to have a battle there for a long time.”
The excitement Tuesday at Pinon Hills didn’t end with the girls’ competition. The Bulldog golf team staged a furious comeback after a third-place finish in the first round, shaving a whopping 20 shots off their team score to come three strokes away from making a clean sweep of the 5A state tournament.
“We’re just so proud of them,” Bulldog coach Paul Kirkwood said. “After the first day, we kind of dug ourselves a hole. We were down 10 strokes. So we just kind of set our sights on, ‘Hey, let’s catch Piedra Vista, who was in second, and see what happens from there.’ All of a sudden, the second day comes around, and we’re chasing first.”
The ‘Dogs saw marked improvement across the board Tuesday.
Caleb Morton, who led the team with a fourth-place overall finish and a two-day total of 160 (81-79), and Jake Craft, eighth overall with a 164 (83-81), each shaved two strokes off their opening rounds, while Chaz Matthews, who placed 11th, cut six strokes for a 168 (87-81), Parker Sanders, 17th overall, 10 for a 176 (93-83), and Giovanni Huitron, 24th, five for a 183 (94-89).
“Caleb came through with two really solid rounds,” said Kirkwood. “Jake struggled on the very first hole, came out and shot a nine, so he was seven over after three holes. So he actually played the last 16 holes three or four over. He really refocused. Our word was kind of, ‘Hey, let’s just grind it out,’ and he did that.
“Chaz had a rough first day, but that second day, he really came back strong. We were down four, and all of a sudden, I look and we’re only down two. I asked him what happened, and he had knocked in an eagle from the fairway, so he got a two on a par four. Giovanni played steady for us both days, and Parker kind of struggled the first day but came alive the second day.”
The Artesia boys’ team 324 Tuesday was better than any other squad in the field’s single-day total for either round. But their 344 from Day One gave St. Pius the breathing room it needed to escape with a three-shot win.
“For a while, St. Pius had stretched the lead out on us, but then once the kids reached the back nine, they just dug in,” said Kirkwood. “I let them know where we stood, and they beared down. At one point, we were only two shots behind St. Pius.
“At the very end of the movie ‘Creed,’ Rocky Balboa tells the kids, ‘Hey, if that fight would’ve gone 10 more seconds, you would’ve won.’ It was kind of like that with our golf team. If we would’ve played two more holes – because we were surging and St. Pius, they were getting nervous – we would’ve won. But it has to end sometime.”
Nearly all of the Lady Bulldogs also improved their Round-One performances in Tuesday’s charge for the crown.
Jackson ended her stellar 2016 campaign in second place overall behind Katie Allen of Albuquerque Academy with a two-day total of 167 (84-83). Brehnan Davis took seventh with a 181 (90-91), Taysea Powell 10th with a 186 (94-92), Sydni Salmon 23rd with a 218 (110-108), and Teagan Archer 30th with a 231 (122-109).
“My girls, their maturity showed,” said Bean. “The leadership on the team really guided our younger players and got us prepared and ready to go, and I’m really proud of all of the girls.”
That maturity was on display in another crucial moment at the tournament.
A signature on a scorecard renders that card final, and no corrections may be made once that occurs. Eighth-grader Powell noticed a discrepancy of two strokes on her card, and despite being told by an opposing coach the strokes had been added, she refused to sign until it was certain.
“Turns out, the two strokes weren’t on the scorecard,” said Bean. “They added the strokes, and we went into the playoff. If she had just signed her name and walked off, we would’ve gotten second.”
The Bulldog golf team will bid farewell this season to two key seniors in Morton and Matthews, and their absence will be felt. But with three varsity lettermen returning, Kirkwood is excited for what the future holds.
“We’re going to miss those guys,” Kirkwood said. “They’ve been playing since they were eighth-graders. In actuality, they’re the first group of eighth-graders to get to play a varsity sport, so I’m proud of them for sticking it out and being dedicated to the golf program, and I’m also proud of our administration for allowing them to start as eighth-graders.
“They took three third-place finishes and two second-place finishes in their careers, and that’s a pretty good accomplishment. We have three returners next year in Jake, Giovanni and Parker, and we’re going to have Wesley Davis coming back, so that’s four pretty strong players plus some other kids who will be competing for those varsity spots.
“We appreciate our administration and all of our teachers. These kids miss a lot of school, and our teachers have really worked with our students and helped them get caught up.”
The Lady Bulldogs, meanwhile, will return their entire varsity squad in 2017.
“I’m so proud of them in every way,” said Bean. “When they play together, it’s just magical. Things happen that make you go, ‘Holy cow, that was awesome.’
“We’re starting to prepare for the repeat now. That’s the plan, anyway.”
This year marked the first fans were able to keep track of golfers in the 5A state tournament’s progress in real time via the iwanamaker.com live scoring site, and many Artesians took advantage, cheering the Bulldogs and Lady Bulldogs on from home.
The AHS golf program asks that anyone who enjoyed the live scoring this year contact NMAA Associate Director Bill Cleland at [email protected] and let him know, as the NMAA will be debating whether or not to continue the practice.