RUSSIAVILLE - Following a team score of 343 on Sept. 11, the Western girls’ golf team has won the Hoosier Conference, but the team said they have their eyes on a larger prize down the road.
Winning the conference is a wonderful thing, coach Steve Hoppes said, but it’s not the most important goal of the season. As a matter of fact, it’s third in the hierarchy, behind winning the state and the sectional, respectively.
“It ranks third, I’ll just be honest with you. Second is winning sectional and, of course, first is going to the state finals. We went last year, and we feel like if we play well, we can go back again,” Hoppes said. “But the conference is still a great accomplishment, especially this year.”
The Panthers won by nearly 30 strokes, with the second-highest score being Northwestern’s 371. Sophomore Elizabeth Mercer recorded her best score of the year, Hoppes said, with a 69, first place and all-conference.
Kylee Duncan had an all-conference score of 84. Ava Williamson was an honorable mention at 98. Natalie Nutt scored a 99, and Chloe Barker was all-conference at 92.
The Panthers lost two seniors from last year, Hoppes said, but all except one of the current golfers on the team played in the state finals last year. This experience boosts the team’s confidence, and knowing what it takes to play at the highest level gives the team an advantage, he said. Mercer agrees.
“I think after this win, it’s good momentum into sectionals,” Mercer said. “It kind of gives us the confidence knowing we can do the same thing and then, again, heading into regionals.”
The Panthers’ success would continue into the next weekend at sectionals at Chippendale, with Mercer having her best performance of her career. She birdied the second hole before nailing her first career hole-in-one on the third, and would record another birdie at 14. She earned medalist with a 2-under 71 to lead Western as sectional champions.
Duncan scored an 82, Williamson scored an 85, Nutt had a 93, and Barker with a 96 for a team score of 331.
Mercer said she knows she’s playing well when she needs to be, and so are the Panthers. It’s always fun to go out there and break 70, she said, and she hopes for repeat performances in the weeks to come.
The ceiling for the team is winning state, she said, and that is the expectation. The team is very close and works very hard, and doesn’t take things too seriously. They know what they’re capable of, and are confident in their abilities on the green.
Golf is different compared to other sports, Mercer said. It’s a very mental game, and having Hoppes as her coach keeps the team cool, calm and collected.
“I think a lot of times, what he does is not necessarily with our swing or anything, it’s mainly mental and just kind of keeping us focused. It’s really easy to lose focus when you’re playing for four or five hours. So I think he just does a really good job of keeping us in it the whole time and not trying to get too down on ourselves,” Mercer said. “It’s a little different than basketball or something where you’re trying to run a play or whatever it is. It’s just a little different being more of a mental sport.”
Where golf is like basketball to Mercer is when she knows she’s in a zone as a golfer. She’ll take riskier and more aggressive shots as her confidence grows, and when she’s on fire, she can be very streaky.
Mercer and her team will hope to be in the zone as they move on to their quest for state. Winning the conference is a great accomplishment, and winning the sectional was even better, but the Panthers have bigger fish to fry in 2021. The Panthers compete in regionals on Saturday at Battle Ground.