By STEVE HANF
When Ledford’s girls won the N.C. High School Athletic Association 3-A championship in 2011, it was in a close shave over Northern Guilford.
This year, the Panthers earned a repeat championship by a 12-shot margin, but still had that close shave – at the expense of coach John Ralls.
“We won and I let ’em shave my head,” Ralls said with a grin. “You’ve got to have a very understanding wife to let them do that – which I’m not sure I do. But they had fun doing it.”
Braving windy, cold and wet conditions at Longleaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines, Ledford shot a 255 in the first round for a nine-shot lead over West Henderson, then bettered that score by four shots on the second day for a 506 total. West landed second at 518 in the 1-2 race. Cardinal Gibbons of Raleigh was a distant third in the 12-team field at 539.
Last year, the Panthers edged Northern Guilford 541 to 545 at Foxfire Resort and Golf Club’s West Course. All four girls from that Ledford team returned, but the pressure to repeat proved just as intense as the pressure to win it the first time.
“It was my last year and I knew I wasn’t going to get another chance,” senior Morgan Brock said. “It was a lot of pressure. I started out really bad and did better on the back nine (round two). In previous years I would start out good and kind of collapse.”
West pulled even with the Panthers by the midway point of the second round, but Ledford finished in impressive fashion. Brock and junior Lexi Kershaw held their own, losing by just a handful of shots to their West competitors, while No. 3 Panther Meghan Holbrooks bested her foe from West by 16 shots. For good measure, the fourth Ledford golfer – sophomore Julia Carroll – came in with an 85 that was the 16th-best score of the day.
“Julia was our ace in the hole,” Ralls said. “She and Morgan both had 85s. That wound up being the difference. It’s great to have the depth and balance we had.”
Senior Tara Simmons of Pikeville C.B. Aycock won the individual tournament for a second straight year. She had a pair of 77s and her 12-over-par total under difficult conditions on the 5,770-yard, par-71 layout was four shots clear of the field.
Rachel Jones of Southwestern Randolph had the best mark for a Triad player, shooting a pair of 80s to finish in a tie for fourth. She was also fourth last year.
Kershaw placed eighth overall with 83-82, Brock was 10th with 83-85, Holbrooks landed in a tie for 12th with 89-84, and Carroll tied for 16th with 92-85.
While Ledford’s depth produced four of the top-16 finishers, runner-up West Henderson had two in the top six but had count a pair of 99s for its third scores.
Carroll’s performance proved impressive considering she played just a handful of matches during the season because of an injured rotator cuff: “I played through pain both days,” she said. “I just had to tough it out.”
Ledford hasn’t let injury or inexperience slow its growth. Brock started playing golf before her freshman year but ended up being the Panthers’ best player that debut season. When Kershaw joined the team the following year, she and Brock reached the state tournament.
Holbrooks, a junior, recalled shooting a 111-115 in the 2011 state meet to end her first year playing golf.
“After I left states last year I was really bummed,” Holbrooks said. “I needed to step up. I went out to Meadowlands and they got my confidence up. Now, if I make a bad shot, I know in my mind that I’m a good golfer and I’ll be fine.”
The outside help, Ralls said, is the well-known secret to the Panthers’ success. For Holbrooks, it’s pros such as Adam Bowles and Chris Hipwell at Meadowlands Golf Club in Wallburg. For Carroll, it’s dad Johnny, the pro at Blair Park Golf Course in High Point. Brooks Brock is a long-time golfer more than capable of assisting his daughter, and former Ledford standout Scott Duerscherl at Deep River Golf Range in High Point instructs Kershaw.
“For every one of them, there’s somebody – not me – who helps them with their game,” Ralls said.
True as that may be, it was Ralls with whom the Panthers had their deal. The ceremonial head-shaving took place in the gym in front of about 30 spectators – and someone from the yearbook staff to document the event. The championship was Ralls’ fifth in golf: His boys teams won three straight crowns a decade ago.
How did this championship for the girls feel compared to last year’s?
“It’s different, but it still feels really good,” Ralls said. “It’s not old or routine. Last year we played so bad on the first day, we were hoping to be within 15 shots and ended up being ahead by one. This year, we played pretty good, had to survive the second day, and we did.”
As for next year, all bets are on. Most of this season’s top 3-A contenders have plenty of talent set to return, and even though the Panthers lose Brock, Ralls said he’s excited to see how much his three returners improve.
“We want to post three scores each day in the 70s,” Ralls said. “We’re capable.”
Think of that impressive title-winning score. Think of the bet the girls already have in mind for Ralls.
“We wanted to dye his hair pink (this year), but he wouldn’t let us,” Brock said.
Chimed in Kershaw: “That’s next year’s bet.”
“It’ll be well worth it,” Ralls concluded.