As they prepared for a practice round at the Class A state meet, Northside Christian’s girls golfers displayed their reputation for cool toughness. Their knees did not shake, their pulses did not race and their hands did not tremble as they put the ball on the tee.
The Mustangs have been here before. Four of their five golfers have played in at least four state tournaments. And that experience had coach D.J. Jackson believing his team could unseat three-time defending state champion Plantation American Heritage and win the Mustangs' first team title since 2004 during the two-day tournament that starts Tuesday in Ocala.
But high school golf is a tough sport to predict. Jackson knew he would have to contend with American Heritage. What he did not foresee was having to hold off a team that didn’t even have a girls golf program a year ago.
In its debut season, Orlando Windermere Prep finished second in its region, showing none of the jitters that are usually a hazard for first-year programs.
That’s because Windermere Prep has three golfers — Shannon Aubert, Cindy Feng and Samantha Wagner — who were ranked among the top 41 in either the Florida State Golf Association’s Junior Tour poll or on Golfweek’s Sagarin rankings at the beginning of the season. Two of those players belong to golf academies that help them reach their potential in the sport.
“(Windermere) has a lot of All-American golfers that have all of the sudden come together to play,” Jackson said. “We have a real team that’s been together for years. It’s a tough thing to deal with.”
Jackson’s biggest gripe is with how the golf season is set up. To be eligible for the postseason, a golfer (boy or girl) has to participate in just four nine-hole matches during the regular season.
“To only have to play that many matches to make a season is weak,” Jackson said. “High school golf should be about being on a team for a whole season. It shouldn’t be something that a player does just to put on a resume and say that he or she won.
“I can guarantee there will be some golfers who win this week that will not even be smiling. It will just be another AJGA event to them.”
According to the Florida High School Athletic Association sports manual, an athlete has to play in just four matches or games to qualify for the postseason, regardless of sport.
“We currently feel (the rule) is sufficient,” Justin Harrison, the FHSAA’s administrator for golf, wrote via e-mail. “The issue of course availability and weather issues are always factors in golf. An increase could limit some student-athletes from competing.”
The rule allows players the flexibility to attend high-profile events during the high school season.
Last month, Northside Christian’s A.J. Newell played at the King Invitational in Oklahoma, where she went up against some of Windermere Prep’s top golfers.
“We’re all pretty tight in the high school world,” said Newell, who finished second at state for individual honors last year. “I know a lot of the girls who play for Windermere and have been friends with them for years.
“It will be tough to beat them.”
Windermere Prep will not be breaking new ground if it wins the state title in its debut season. Bradenton Prep won the girls title its first year in 2006.
“These teams have academy-based players that decided to play high school golf,” Jackson said. “We’ve been beaten a few times before against teams that have popped out of nowhere. It’s hard because these girls have waited and grinded it out for so long for a chance to win a team title.
“There could be a team that wins where it won’t mean anything.”
The FHSAA does not have much concern about the meteoric rise of startup programs.
“I think that is what makes sports so exciting,” Harrison said. “Anything can happen from year to year. If you look at the field of teams, there are some teams who make it to state almost every year and there are some who may be making their first trip.”
The unexpected competition has not diminished the determination of the Mustangs, who finished as the state runnerup last year and third in 2007 and ’08.
“I think the course is fair and we’re all starting out with the same score,” Newell said. “We just need to play a solid round each day.”
Class A boys
Where: Silver Springs Shores, The Country Club, Ocala
Team qualifiers: Calvary Christian Northside Christian, Saddlebrook, Wesley Chapel
Individual qualifier: Fivay’s Austin Padova, Steinbrenner’s Jordan Debonis
Class 2A boys
Where: Juliette Falls, Dunnellon
Team qualifiers: Newsome, Wharton
Individual qualifier: Durant’s Connor Hasson, Dunedin’s Travis Huston, St. Petersburg’s Jack Maguire
Class A girls
Where: Ocala Golf Club, Ocala
Team qualifiers: Northside Christian, Steinbrenner
Individual qualifiers: Blake’s Summer Moser, Holy Names’ Emmy Martin, Saddlebrook’s Lauren Riehle
Class 2A girls
Where: Golden Hills Golf & Turf Club, Ocala
Team qualifiers: Plant, Plant City
Individual qualifier: Durant’s Madison Opfer, Springstead’s Megan Berube, St. Petersburg’s Shane Crutchfield, Countryside’s Madison Glennie