By Michael Hicks
The Tiara Rado Golf Course, home of the 2013 5A state girls golf championship, did its job. It played tough and hard with a lot of roll to it.
But the Grand Junction course also played fair. That’s all Dakota Ridge’s Sydney Merchant and Gillian Vance could ask for as the Lady Eagles’ duo peaked at the right time, each finishing in the top 10 on May 21 at the conclusion of the two-day tournament.
Their play, along with that of junior teammate Kirsten Weigand, helped 5A Jeffco League and regional champion Dakota Ridge place eighth with 527 points. Cherry Creek won the team title with a 470 score, followed by Arapahoe at 475 and Regis Jesuit at 502.
Merchant, a freshman who was the 5A Jeffco League MVP this year and placed second at regionals, led the charge. She finished tied for third alongside Arapahoe’s Hannah Wood and Legacy’s Sarah Hankins with an 11-over 155 total. Merchant was just two shots back of runner-up Jenni Chun of Highlands Ranch and nine behind state champion Calli Ringsby of Cherry Creek.
“She’s a big-time player who is used to playing in those types of events,” Dakota Ridge head coach Levi Bartholomew said of Merchant. “She’s a competitor who thrives and is not afraid of the spotlight whatsoever.”
That said, the quiet-talking Merchant also isn’t one to shine the spotlight on herself as much as it just finds her.
“She’s very quiet. She doesn’t put the spotlight on herself per se. She’s not the type who likes to be up in front, but she likes to compete,” Bartholomew said.
Merchant was 1-under through seven holes before she double-bogeyed No. 17. Still, she birdied three times in the first round to come into the clubhouse just 4-over.
“Sydney did really well. It’s awesome to see her do that as a freshman,” Vance said.
That said, it’s not like Vance played shabby herself. A year after she tied for 25th, Vance cut three strokes off her 2012 score and moved up 16 slots. And she did so despite 12 bogeys and a pair of double bogeys.
“It felt pretty good. I was kind of nervous going into first round,” Vance said.
If she was nervous, it didn’t show, at least not until Day 2. The Dakota Ridge sophomore was just 1-over through nine holes and only 5-over after the first day. Her second round, however, hit a rough patch early on with back-to-back double bogeys on No. 3 and 4. She was 11-over before making birdie on the Par-4 No. 11 — her second birdie of the tournament — before she bogeyed four of her final seven holes.
“The second day was a little more of a struggle with that first couple of holes,” Vance said. “I’m content. I’m happy that I made top 10 though I could’ve done a little bit better.”
Columbine’s Jaylee Tait, coming off a regional championship, struggled out of the gate, falling 6-over through the first three holes. But she found some consistency from No. 13-18, shooting just 1-over on the final six holes during the two-day tournament. She finished tied for 30th with Fossil Ridge’s Katie Larson at 28-over 172.
Tait may have had some early warning signs of the struggles she would face following her practice round the day before.
“I didn’t play quite as well as I would have liked. My drives were inconsistent,” Tait said via text message.
Columbine teammates Corinne Wilson and Erin Lemberger shot 91-over 235 and 92-over 236, respectively.
Chatfield’s Lauren Pearson carded a 59-over 203, while Nichole Hagen was 11 strokes back at 70-over 214, tied with Weigand.
So is Dakota Ridge’s strong finish a good omen for 2014?
“Yes, I think so,” Vance said.
Bartholomew certainly agreed.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Kirsten, being a junior, this was her first time playing in anything like that. She handled it very, very well. It left her wanting more and being more productive next year. We’re definitely excited with what we’ve got coming back.”
Contact Michael Hicks at email@example.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 15.