Names from all across the state dotted the individual leaderboard at the state 3-A women’s golf championship.
Medalist Tara Simmons from C.B. Aycock highlighted the list of golfers from the eastern half of North Carolina. Sarah Bertram of Concord led the Charlotte-and-beyond region with her second-place showing. Northern Guilford’s Taylor Penzer and her third-place finish topped the Triad.
And Ledford from Thomasville? It took a long look at the individual leaderboard to find any Panthers. But thanks to a pair of 12th-place finishes and another in the top 20, consistent and balanced Ledford led the way in the team standings.
“It’s kind of a nice way to do it,” Panthers coach John Ralls said. “You have to have a good team.”
Four of Ledford’s young golfers qualified out of the regional for the first-ever 3-A championship in the 31-year history of the tournament. Playing in cold conditions on wet fairways at Foxfire Resort and Golf Club’s West Course, Ledford finished at 541 for a four-shot victory over Northern Guilford after 36 holes on the par-72, 5,787-yard layout.
Junior Morgan Brock carded 91-88 and sophomore Lexi Kershaw shot 92-87 to tie for 12th place. Freshman Julia Carroll came through with 94-89, and that’s what made the difference for the Panthers. No other team in the tournament carded six counting scores that didn’t include a 100 or higher in the mix.
As good as those scores turned out to be, enthusiasm over the Panthers’ performances was nowhere to be found during the first round. The Panthers regularly shot in the 120s for nine-hole matches this season, but low numbers failed to materialize this time.
“Somebody would double (bogey) a hole and you’d see tears welling up in the eyes,” Ralls said. “Part of it was frustration, but the bigger part was ‘I’m letting everybody else down.’ That’s kind of cool, that they had that kind of commitment to each other.”
A beleaguered foursome – including sophomore Meghan Holbrooks, who had rounds of 111 and 115 to end her first year playing golf – trudged to the clubhouse to see just how bad that first day looked on paper.
“It was nerve-wracking, tough conditions,” Kershaw said. “We all played horrible the first day.”
Then a strange thing happened. Score after score went up – and up and up – and the Panthers discovered they were winning. Ledford’s 277 was one shot better than Northern and Cardinal Gibbons, and four ahead of Marvin Ridge.
“We were hoping we were within 10-15 shots,” Ralls said. “They were accepting that. Then we go inside and see that we’re winning. There’s a weight that’s lifted off everybody’s shoulders.”
That realization gave Ledford newfound optimism for the second round: “We needed to play the way we were capable of playing,” Carroll said. “It felt better (on the second day).”
Of course, if the Panthers had felt pressure the first day, it was magnified in the finale. Players from Ledford and Northern competed in the same groups, leading to what amounted to a match-play atmosphere.
“Everybody could tell what everybody else was doing,” Kershaw said. “Just finish good. We knew we had a chance.”
Brock found herself in the toughest spot of all, playing with Northern’s Penzer. The senior shot an 83 in Round 2, at one time owning a nine-shot lead over Brock. Brock was up to the task, though, cutting that margin all the way to five shots.
That was close enough in the pressure-packed environment.
“(The 18th) was a dogleg around the trees and you see 50 people standing around the green waiting for you to finish,” Brock said. “That made it really nerve-wracking.”
Kershaw ended up beating her opponent by three shots over the final three holes, helped along by several nice chips to within inches for birdies or pars. Carroll, meanwhile, went ahead of her Northern competitor by five shots, a run highlighted by a chip-in at 17.
For all the number-crunching being done on the course, there was still the waiting game. Ledford’s girls heard excited chatter from another team that thought it had won. Ralls, who guided the Panther men to state titles from 2005-07, had seen it all before – and wanted nothing to do with it.
“I tried not to get involved with it,” the coach said. “I get too nervous looking at the scoreboard at the end. I get a snack and sit back. You get nervous for them – they’re good kids and you want them to have some success.”
When the official word finally came, Ledford’s girls reacted with equal parts excitement and relief. Of course, it didn’t take long for the Panthers to begin pondering the future.
“We have good expectations for next year,” Kershaw said. “Lots of the other people had seniors.”
These young Panthers, meanwhile, figure only to improve. Kershaw has been playing a little more than three years, while Brock and Carroll have been at it for two. Even the remaining team members – senior Tiffany Cox, junior Katherine Brinkley, and sophomores Kelsey Leach and Mary Davis – don’t add a whole lot of age to the team.
Ralls, who has coached the girls throughout the team’s five-year existence, downplayed his role, saying the players all get a great deal of outside help.
Kershaw, Leach and Cox work with former Ledford great Scott Duerscherl at Deep River Golf Range. Julia Carroll’s father, Johnny, is the head pro at Blair Park in High Point and instructs his daughter and Holbrooks. Ralls said Brock’s dad is a talented golfer who provides good coaching to Morgan.
“Next year won’t be easy,” Ralls said. “But to do it with a young group is special.”