By their standards, the first round of the Class 3A state championship on Tuesday didn’t go as well as it could have for the girls of the Aspen High School golf team.
Sure, Aspen Golf Club can be challenging, but the Skiers knew that coming in and maybe had higher expectations than most, considering they are hosting the tournament in their own backyard.
So, to be tied as a team for first place at the midway point of the 36-hole affair came as a surprise. Just maybe not too surprising.
“Not totally surprising but a little surprising,” Aspen girls golf coach Shannon Day said. “They were probably a little surprised because they didn’t feel as good as it looks, but I was so proud of them. There is nothing I have other than pride.”
This is a program that was happy just to be able to field a four-person team only a few years ago. Now, it’s knocking on the door of a first state championship, and it could come on Wednesday on its home course.
After 18 holes on Tuesday, Aspen finished with a three-player score of 263 (50-over par) and is tied with two-time defending state champion St. Mary’s Academy for the top spot.
“It is really exciting,” sophomore Lenna Persson said. “It’s still really exciting because there are not that many low scores out there today, because Aspen is a hard course. There are tough greens, lots of balls lipping out and just burning the edges. Honestly, I’m really happy with how everyone played today. We know we can do better, and that’s an exciting feeling.”
Persson, the team’s two-time regional champion and burgeoning star, led the Skiers by shooting an 8-over 79 and finds herself in solo third place entering the final round. Junior Maddy Bante, the defending individual state champ from St. Mary’s Academy, shot 74 and holds a four-stroke lead over Peak to Peak senior Noelle Thompson (78) and sits five shots ahead of Persson.
Like so many on Tuesday, Bante struggled early, shooting 39 on the front nine. But she finished on a heater, going bogey-free over the final eight holes to shoot 35 on the back nine.
Persson played alongside Bante on Tuesday — Rye’s Emma Garcia (94, T18) rounded out the lead threesome — and she’ll do the same on Wednesday, where Persson said she will need to find more consistency to make up the five-stroke deficit.
“It was kind of hard on the back nine, to be honest,” Persson said, noting the fast greens and gusty winds players had to battle through on Tuesday. “I’m happy with it. It was kind of inconsistent. I had some lucky breaks, but then I also had some good shots, and then I also had some unlucky things going on. So I’m happy with how it turned out.”
Not too far back of the front group is Aspen junior Brooke O’Sullivan, who shot 84 and sits in fifth place among the 84-player field. Salida’s Kyndra Johnson shot 80 and holds down fourth place.
Catching Bante may be too tall of a task for Persson, but she also plays far beyond her years, and according to Day, this will give her a chance come the final round.
“She’s always been really mature. … You saw the nerves, but not in the swing,” Day said. “Maybe some putts, but the whole field was nervous. In the first four or five holes, no one was doing much special. Then she got into her groove, and that is such a skill: to be able to get through the elements and push through.”
Critical to the Skiers being in the championship mix was getting a solid third score from either Audrey Woodrow or Madison Nelson, both sophomores. And both delivered, with Woodrow shooting an even 100 to end the round tied for 30th, and Nelson shot 110 to finish tied for 53rd place.
Woodrow, especially, probably left a few strokes out there, but it was more than enough for the Skiers to stay in contention.
“She is cool and collected and just keeps it together. It’s not her best, but she did her job,” Day said of Woodrow’s round. “We really had the home-field advantage. Golf is so weird. I know a lot of them didn’t feel good during the round, but that happens so often.”
In third place as a team is Peak to Peak, four strokes back of leaders Aspen and St. Mary’s Academy. Prospect Ridge is in fourth place, 10 back of the co-leaders. The metrics — found via the CHSAA Golf app — had Peak to Peak as the top-ranked team in 3A entering the state tournament, followed by No. 2 Prospect Ridge, No. 3 Berthoud, and No. 4 Aspen. Berthoud was fifth after the first round, 11 back of the co-leaders.
For Persson, who after a calm practice round on Monday finally felt the nerves on the opening tee on Tuesday, says she needs to tighten up her short game, notably her chipping, to have a chance at making a run at Bante on Wednesday.
“It was really nerve-racking. There were so many people behind us. I was like, ‘OK, nice and easy right in the fairway.’ And I was happy. Starting on a par was a good way to start the day,” she said. “My chipping is usually a lot better than it was today. I had no up and downs, which I usually do, and chips I’m usually super confident on were either way too long or way too short. That wasn’t really like me.”
Cleaning up the small things will be key for all of Aspen’s players but so will handling the nerves. As the day wears on Wednesday, the intensity will likely ramp up, as well.
And for the Skiers, this is uncharted territory, although the boys golf team has made it commonplace in recent years, winning state titles in 2018 and 2021.
Now, the Aspen girls are 18 holes away from possibly adding to that legacy.
“You can’t change that,” Day said of the nerves. “That is not something you can control. The pressure is going to be there. But yeah, now I also think they and I have more confidence they can play under pressure. So, I don’t want to worry about it too much. We are there and we prepared, and it’s going to be fun.”
The Round 2 pairings, released late on Tuesday, have Nelson teeing off at 9:30 a.m. from the 10th hole. The other three Skiers will start from hole No. 1, beginning with Woodrow, also at 9:30. O’Sullivan will tee off at 11 a.m. in the second-to-last group to get on course, alongside Prospect Ridge’s Hope Torres and Salida’s Johnson.
The leaders will be the final to tee off from the first hole around 11:10 a.m., a threesome that includes Persson, Bante, and Thompson.