The regional golf tournaments were not kind for most of the Pasco County qualifiers. Only two remain - Saddlebrook's girls team and Academy at the Lakes' Alexandra Irish. The county's last hopes for postseason glory travel to the Ridgewood Lakes Golf and Country Club in Davenport for the two-day, 36-hole Class 1A state championship.
Saddlebrook coach Mike Tali is realistic about his team's chances for the state title, considering their uneven play at districts and regionals. Their second-place finish last week was a two-stroke letdown to first-time champion Inverness Citrus
'There's no reason our girls can't go out and play up to their ability. We can finish fifth or sixth, and I think that's as good as we can do,' Tali said.
Their erratic play down the stretch includes a district championship victory in which they shot 10 strokes over their average. Leslie Choucard has been the most consistent player recently, with top-10 finishes in districts and regionals. Tali conceded that his team does not have a standout among top players Choucard, Marianna Garcia and Mallory Etcheberry.
'Any one of our big three can go out and beat the other ones. They are all pretty evenly matched,' Tali said..
The unfamiliar terrain of Inverness Golf Club may have undone the Spartans last week. But, unlike the regional tournament, Saddlebrook will be able to play Ridgewood Lakes in a practice round on Monday. Tali acknowledged that his competition could be as unfamiliar with the course as his team.
'I don't think any girls from our region or area have seen that course,' Tali said. 'The state put a scorecard on its Web site. It's not anything super long. I think they are playing 5,400 yards. It shouldn't be a really demanding course. It should be like any other course - if you hit good shots you will be rewarded.'
Wherever Tali's girls finish, their coach expects the experience they gather to help them in their perennial postseason appearances. Especially so for his middle school starters such as Lauren Riehle.
'This is good experience for our younger girls because they are all pretty good players,' Tali said. 'Our two little girls both broke 90 at regionals. ... Most of the other teams had one or two girls that broke 100. ... Hopefully in two or three years they will be top-level players and we'll get back to having a chance to contend again.'
Individually, Irish is making history for Academy at the Lakes as she plays for the school's first state championship. But she is no stranger to this level of golf, as the former Wharton student has made two trips to state. Her new school is buzzing with excitement, according to Academy coach Kevin Crowley.
'Everybody is so proud of her. She is paving the way,' Crowley said. 'She is a great sports role model for the other girls and, actually, for the whole school. It is so cool that it's our first year and we are at this level. It's fantastic all the way around. Morale is very high.'
Irish has been a steady golfer throughout her senior season, consistently the best on her co-ed team. She began her spectacular postseason run with an individual district championship and finished second in a sudden-death playoff at regionals. Crowley said his golfer is playing at her peak.
'She's in the groove, and she knows her game really well,' Crowley said. 'She's hitting the ball and coming off the tees well. ... The very few times she gets into trouble she gets out, recovers, shakes it off and moves on. As long as she keeps on doing what shes doing and is able to sink a few birdie putts, she will do well.'