Wilsonville wins 5A title by seven strokes while Kaitlyn Howe places 3rd in state

SUBMITTED PHOTO - The Wilsonville girls golf team and head coach Mike Nichols pose for a photo with their scorecard after winning the state title.

The Wilsonville girls golf team experienced a wide range of emotions at the Oregon State Championships.

There was the nervous excitement following an auspicious first day, the confusion and uncertainty during a maelstrom of a morning and both disappointment and satisfaction through topsy-turvy rounds.

But the pure elation they felt as they jumped, hugged and snapped dozens of pictures after learning they had earned the program's first state title overshadowed all other sensations.

The Wildcats finished first with 546 total strokes while Pendleton placed second with 553 strokes and Summit finished third with 558 strokes at Emerald Valley Golf Club May 15-16. Also, senior golfer Kaitlyn Howe earned her highest ever finish — third — Jessica Berry placed eighth, Lexi Huebert and Haley Schulte finished tied for 19th and Darian Breshears placed 30th.

The win was the apotheosis of the program's climb from afterthought to perennial contender.

After failing to reach the state tournament between 2008 and 2011, the Wildcats have finished in the top five of the state standings five times since 2012.

However, due to Summit's utter dominance, Wilsonville personnel didn't see a plausible path toward a state title in recent years.

But this year seemed different.

For one, Wilsonville's entire varsity lineup consists of seniors — most of whom joined the program their freshman year.

And as they found out in a tournament in Bend earlier this season, Summit, which had won many consecutive state titles, had taken a step back.

The Wildcats finished just 13 strokes behind Summit and 24 strokes behind Bend (on Bend's home course).

"We had it in our head that we could do well at state because at Bend, we went in third and we weren't that far off from them. We knew we could make a move if we played our best," Howe said.

Wilsonville went on to win the district and the regional tournaments handily and set up a reasonable opportunity to win state — though the aspiration was never explicitly stated.

"I don't think we ever said we wanted to win. We definitely wanted to put up a fight and do well," Berry said.

Huebert played a practice round the week before the state tournament while Schulte, Breshears and Berry played together the Saturday before the tournament and Howe played on Sunday.

But the weather was crummy Saturday and the three Wildcats couldn't manage a typical 18-hole round.

Instead, they scoped out the course and jotted down details such as the location of sand traps, sloppiness of the greens and desired landing spots.

Though Howe says she has taken notes prior to major tournaments, most Wilsonville players don't usually do this.

But this was a special occasion.

"I personally don't usually take notes before I go out and play. State we definitely wanted to get in the top three. That was a goal. Once we figured out the weather wasn't the greatest, we decided to take notes and it helped a ton in knowing the course ahead of time," Schulte said.

On the first day of the tournament, Howe and Wilsonville quickly established themselves as serious individual and team state title threats.

Howe, the district and regional champion, played some of the best golf of her career in the opening nine holes.

In fact, through eight holes, she had accumulated three birdies and five pars. And she did so despite waiting behind a much slower group. Her round took five-and-a-half hours to finish.

To maintain sanity, Howe walked in circles during elongated stoppages and didn't pull her golf club out of her bag until immediately before she could hit.

"I feel like once I do that (take her club out) I feel like I'm in the mindset to hit," Howe said. "I walk in circles in the fairway to keep myself moving and occupied."

Howe putted exceptionally during the stretch and also stuck an iron shot on the par-three fifth just a few feet from the hole.

"That was really nice. I was just in the zone," Howe said.

Howe's second nine holes didn't go as well as the first but she still exited her first round with 73 strokes and a two-shot lead.

Pendleton's Haley Greb and Summit's Olivia Loberg bested Howe at the Bend tournament and Howe was surprised to have shot lower than them in the first day at state.

"When I found out I was in first I was shocked and kind of baffled," Howe said.

Berry posted the second lowest day-one score among Wildcats, 90, while Huebert shot a 96 and Breshears accumulated 101 strokes.

After the first round, the Wildcats were ecstatic to learn they held a four-stroke lead.

"We were super excited but we knew there were four teams competing for the top spots," Berry said.

The Wildcats finished their round around 7:30 p.m., went out to dinner and ice cream afterward and then Howe left for her hotel room.

Only the television distracted her from the opportunity that loomed the next day.

"Going back to the hotel, it was hard not to think about," Howe said. "But I told myself: 'You're not at the golf course. You don't have to think about it.'"

And the next day would further test her nerves.

After the girls met in one hotel room the following morning, Howe received a text message from assistant coach Cindy Anderson. She told her the match would be delayed. Howe thought she was joking but Anderson was serious.

So the girls waited for hours before the tournament administrators determined that the final round would be shortened from 18 to nine holes.

"That's never happened as far as I know and never happened in my experience at any tournament," said head coach Mike Nichols.

While waiting, Berry putted and chipped, took a break and then putted and chipped again.

The delay was frustrating but Nichols reminded the players that every team had to deal with the same difficulties.

"Coach reminded us we aren't the only people in this situation and not to let the rain or the weather stop us," Schulte said.

Because of how much she excelled on the front nine the first day, Howe was happy to learn they would only play the initial nine holes on day two.

And she played solidly through seven holes — accumulating five pars and two bogeys. But the final two holes dashed her state medalist hopes. She bogeyed the eighth hole and then three-putted for a double bogey on the ninth hole. She wound up finishing just one stroke behind co-medalists Greb and Loberg.

"After finishing my round, I really wish we could have played the back to redeem myself," Howe said.

Still, Howe not only catalyzed the team's state title win but, after placing either sixth or seventh in her first three state competitions, broke into the top five for the first time. Nichols says Howe is one of the three best players in program history.

"My goal every year was to get top five and it was a little discouraging getting so close but it lit a fire in me. This year being able to break the barrier and get in the top five was the icing on the cake," Howe said.

Berry was a model of consistency throughout the tournament and posted her third 45 nine-hole score on day-two.

"Jessica wasn't hitting (her) driver well but boy did she make recovery shots, chips and putts," Nichols said.

"I was happy with how I played. I felt like I could have played better but I felt like I did what I could for the team," Berry said.

Other than Berry, Wilsonville's top four golfers didn't play their best on the second day of the tournament. Huebert posted the Wildcats' fourth best score, 56, while Breshears shot a 61.

And in general, likely due to the poor conditions and high stakes, most players from the top four schools played worse on the second day than the first day.

Schulte was an exception. One day after losing her swing, she played the round of her life.

On the driving range immediately before her opening round, Schulte watched in horror as shot after shot whipped left.

Seeing Schulte's frustration, Nichols walked over and gave her a few pointers. He told her to shorten her swing and to follow through with her arms instead of pulling inward. He also gave her psychological advise.

"This isn't life. This is golf. Just calm down," Nichols said.

Schulte was nervous entering the opening tee of her round but hit a solid drive that calmed her nerves. She then finished with a par on three of the first five holes and posted a 106.

The Wildcats didn't use her score that day but needed her on day two.

In the nerve-racking nine hole round, Schulte managed three pars and shot a 45 — her best nine hole score ever.

"I knew it was my last tournament ever and I wanted to play the best I could. The first day practice balls scared me, but on the second day I felt more confident. I usually do a little bit better the second day. My balls were going straighter and my chipping was way better," Schulte said.

"I was super excited for her. They were all standing by the green and I went over and gave her a hug," Berry said. "We needed her score. Without that it might have been a completely different situation."

Following the tournament, Howe didn't expect the Wildcats to finish first. But standing next to her bag outside the tent, she saw the team huddle up and her teammates signaled to her to come over.

"They said 'We won.' I said 'Oh my goodness.' I was just so happy we won state as a team. We were all crying and emotional. We were so excited we could do that your senior year," Howe said.

"We couldn't believe we finally did it," Schulte said,"

The girls all say that Nichols was a calming influence throughout the tournament. Beforehand, he reminded them that reaching state is a privilege and an accomplishment. After the first round, he preached that finishing in the top four would be a major accomplishment in itself. And he provided individual advice and instruction throughout the season.

"Coach Nicks is the sweetest guy ever and the best coach I could have asked for. He's always there if you have a bad holes and he helps me a lot with my mental game," Schulte said.

Nichols had previously won a state title as an assistant coach for the 2004 state championship winning football team and the 2010 runner-up girls basketball teams.

But this time, he was the head coach of a state title winning team.

"Every once in awhile I look over and say 'Man that's a state championship trophy. We did that?' It hasn't sunk in yet," Nichols said.

Nichols started coaching the girls golf program nine years ago. Since then, the sport has increased in popularity at Wilsonville High, Charbonneau Golf Course has donated generously and a few extremely talented players, like Howe, have entered the program.

Nichols says the state title was the culmination of a winning foundation built by former players such as Audrey Chames and Juhee Lee.

"Over the years, all those players have built a foundation, a legacy. They have established the foundation on which we've been building a golf program," Nichols said.

The Wildcats won the state title despite managing hectic and well-rounded schedules.

All of them have high grade point averages and take advanced placement classes while two were selected as Springfest princesses and one is also a part of the Wilsonville band.

"For them to balance everything in their lives is remarkable. It's amazing," Nichols said.

To celebrate, the team donned state championship medals at Texas Roadhouse, ate, giggled, sung, and decided they would buy state championship rings.

They didn't arrive home until midnight.

In 2014, as freshmen, Howe, Berry and Breshears joined the girls golf team while Schulte joined the team the following year.

More than three years later, they will depart together as state champions.

"It feels super good. I'm really happy with how the season turned out. My sophomore year, I would not have ever thought we would come close to win state let alone actually doing it. It was super exciting. Everyone's been here since we were freshman and everyone's been moving up. It's really cool," Berry said.

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