As Cats’ tradition holds, Ranger heritage swells

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Annika Harmon finished second individually at Saturday’s sectional as Wildcat golfers snagged the top three spots overall. The Cats have been entrenched among the area’s top programs, and they’ll be joined in Saturday’s regional by a Forest Park team that advanced out of the sectional for the first time in program history. The Rangers will tee off at 9 a.m. with the Wildcats following at 9:20.

Herald Sports Writer

Saturday, two local girls golf teams will make the trek to Country Oaks Golf Club in Montgomery. But the stark difference between the two programs can be best illustrated by two observations from their coaches.

The first: Jasper coach Steve Milligan estimates that all of his players arrived to their first-ever practice having played golf previously and some with tournament-type experience.

The second: Forest Park coach Bryce Morrison estimates that none of his players arrived to their first-ever practice having played golf previously, let alone in a tournament.

It’s the difference between reloading a program and establishing one, and no two coaches may understand this more than Milligan and Morrison. Both teams will play in Saturday’s 18-team regional as the Wildcats make their sixth trip in seven years while the Rangers are making their first visit.

Leading the Rangers is a group of six seniors, four of whom have been on the team since they were freshmen — a rare occurrence for a small program like Forest Park. All four entered without serious golf experience. For Morrison, he said there is as much emphasis in the beginning on learning golf and tournament etiquette as improving the short game.

“At first, they don’t understand things like you can’t walk in front of someone’s line,” Morrison said. “Or you can’t putt with the flag in the hole or it’s a two-point penalty.”

With girls starting from scratch, the best way to play catch-up is for the players to catch what Morrison calls “the buzz,” meaning a real attraction and passion for the game. Amie Weyer has been one of those girls. She grew up playing volleyball, but switched to golf in high school. Turns out, she’s pretty good. She scored a 104, second on the team to Jordan Buechler's 101, at sectional. She calls the team “basically family” and sees this season’s success as a catapult for the future.

“I think that we need to get more girls involved,” she said. “And the best way is to win stuff, and this year we’ve won a lot of things.”

Wins will always help, but it’s also about raising golf awareness. Morrison said most people grow up playing soccer or baseball while golf is not really on the radar. To build a program, there needs to be a concentrated effort by community members.

“We’re trying to get a feeder program,” Morrison said. “It’s really difficult. With feeder programs, you rely on parents a lot. You need a few parents really into golf. ... You need help.”

For the Wildcats, enter Missy Krempp. Krempp is the creator of the Jasper Junior Golf team, a travel squad not affiliated with the middle school. In 2008, Krempp used the scores from the Dad’s Root Beer Junior Golf Tour, also her creation, to pick five or six players and create a team of talented, golf-enthused youngsters. Jasper’s top three golfers — Annie Getzin, Annika Harmon and Sarah Ackerman — are JJG alumni. The program, as well as the Dad’s tournament, offers young golfers exposure to the tournaments that are so crucial before entering the prep level.

“You can’t get the same experience playing with mom or grandma,” Krempp said. “You’ve got to be in that competitive atmosphere ... where there’s pressure in every moment.”

Obviously, the JJG is not the sole reason for Jasper’s success. The team has won 17 Big Eight Conference titles, 14 sectionals and five regionals and appeared in the state finals 15 times. The talent has always been there, but Krempp said the programs for pre-high school golfers have created depth. The great players will always be great, but being able to field a solid five is a different story. Milligan’s assessment of his 2013 squad team perfectly coincides with that theory.

“There was no surprise in the No. 1 and No. 2, but the 3, 4, 5 and 6 girls have really been surprising because they worked really hard over the summer to get themselves better and to make us better,” Milligan said.

Harmon has been playing golf since grade school and credits her dad, Jeff, for getting her enthused about the sport. She looks at the middle school program and the team’s work ethic as factors to the success.

“The middle school program helps because it gets everybody into (golf),” she said. “Also, if you look at other teams, they don’t practice every day and we do.”

It’s that kind of constant attraction and depth into the sport that gives them a competitive advantage and keeps the wins coming.

Morrison is optimistic about the future for Forest Park. He’s also realistic about Saturday. The Rangers started their season at Country Oaks in August, where they shot a season-best 396. That same score, in all likelihood, would not get them out of the regional — both Morrison and Milligan said 320 should do it — but surpassing it would be a strong cap to the season.

“I hope the exposure will raise interest,” Morrison said. “We have a lot of evenly matched schools in our sectional. ... You don’t necessarily have to shoot these great scores to continue to regionals, so you build from that and then it kind of snowballs.”

The Wildcats, though, are not putting any cap on their expectations. They want to be regional champs and go to the state finals for the second consecutive year. Milligan, always the optimist, expects nothing less.

“People are saying, ”˜Oh, Jasper’s not ranked,’” he said. “Let me tell you something, ranking doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to surprise some people on Saturday.”

Contact Joseph Fanelliat

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