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Major hurdles just keep falling

Two things to know about Christina Gray's golf game: First, she shot 84 at the region tournament a year ago as a freshman, including a ghastly 10 on the first hole. And second, a year later, she placed in the top 10 at the state tournament, tying for sixth.

In between, she barely took a day off, spending time driving, chipping and putting as many balls as possible. The effort paid off this season as Gray, a sophomore, led Tampa Prep to the Class A, District 9 crown, then shot even par 72 to capture the region championship as an individual.

"When I look at the end result this season, I'm excited," Gray said. "And that's because I did better than last year. I feel like I had some improvement."

That could be an understatement for Gray, 15, who hits 250 yards off the tee, routinely reaching par-5's in two strokes. Also, she displayed improved irons to accompany her length this season. She shot a personal best 34 for nine holes in a home match at Westchase Golf Course.

Since then, Gray has adhered to a motto of always trying to improve upon that low score by two strokes.

"She is a strong girl physically and every time she tees it up, she has (that) goal in mind," Tampa Prep coach Richard Veghte said. "That type of mentally on the course has really helped her game because she is goal-oriented and it shows. She's always trying to improve."

Gray had extra motivation at the state tournament after seeing Morgan Pressel, who won her second title for Boca Raton St. Andrew's. A junior phenom who qualified for the 2003 U.S. Women's Open, Pressel bested Gray by 21 shots over two days, but Gray had her moments.

"Going in, I just approached it like any other tournament, plus I really didn't know that much about her," said Gray, who shot 5-over (77-72) but outdrove Pressel off the tee more than once. "I just focused on what I wanted to accomplish. But afterwards, hearing about who she was and what she has done, it was pretty exciting to have played with her. I experienced a lot."

But not nearly as much as she wants to experience in her prep career. Though she is the first to admit her game needs refining, Gray has high expectations.

"I definitely want to win a state title," she said. "And more district and region titles, too."

She also wants to lower her nine-hole average, shoot more rounds under par and permanently stay under 80. Hence the constant practice.

"There is no offseason," said Gray, who is participating in AJGA and Greater Tampa Junior Golf events. "I play as much as possible and try to play every day. I work right up until the golf season because there's always room for improvement."


GOLFER OF THE YEAR: Christina Gray, So., Tampa Prep

CINDY LACROSSE, SR., PLANT: Great regular season, won Class 2A, District 7.

JENNA TAYLOR, SO., NEWSOME: Missed state tournament by one stroke.

DANA TURKER, JR., BERKELEY PREP: Top 20 in state in Class A.

STEFFANI SMITH, JR., ARMWOOD: Finished in top 5 in districts.

ALEX IRISH, FR., TAMPA PREP: No. 1 in district tournament.

_ ROD GIPSON, Times correspondent