Oak Mountain girls golf caps decade-long journey with first state championship appearance

Published 9:54 am Saturday, May 18, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

MUSCLE SHOALS – The Oak Mountain Eagles made history just by showing up to the Class 7A girls golf state championships, but just like they had throughout the season, they held their own against the top teams in the state.

For coach Susan Schwartz, the tournament from May 13-14 at Robert Trent Jones Shoals was a moment a decade in the making as the team went from its inception 10 years ago to its first state championship appearance in 2024.

“We started this program 10 years ago, and it’s been a long haul,” Schwartz said. “We have worked so hard to get to the point that we could be competitive and to have been competitive the last few years and then to get out of sectionals because by far our section, our region is the toughest in the state for 7A and to get out of that and in the sub state and then defeat the reigning state champion in 7A to move on to the state championships was just unbelievable.”

The Eagles faced stiff challenges from perennial powerhouses Hewitt-Trussville, Auburn and eventual champion UMS-Wright, but their fourth-place finish included big performances from freshman Kate Nickles, who finished in fourth with 5-over-par, and seventh grader Reese Powell, who came in a tie for 10th with 11-over-par.

Those performances were the culmination of big seasons from Oak Mountain’s young stars, and Schwartz is proud of the growth they have showed.

“I knew that this team was going to be a good team, but the rate at which they grew was astonishing,” Schwartz said. “We’re really, really young. We have a 7th grader on the team. Our No. 1 player’s a ninth grader, and it’s just the growth that I’ve seen in them throughout the season is just tremendous and I’m so overjoyed that they got to experience their first state championships.”

Of their roster this season, the Eagles had four seniors and one junior with the vast majority of their players being underclassmen or middle schoolers.

The seniors’ road is one that took them through some of the early days of the program, the closure of their former home course of Eagle Point Country Club and move to Inverness Country Club, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic that disrupted the program.

The past three seasons have seen Oak Mountain build momentum through consistency and improvement, and Schwartz said that the recent years have been key in building toward the historic achievement of making state.

“I feel like these last three years have been finally where we could have some firm footing and some consistency in our program, which that’s what builds any team, any sport,” Schwartz said.

Two of those seniors, Laura Kelley and Elise Mullins, made the trip to state to culminate a journey that took them through their middle school years playing golf to now mentoring the middle schoolers on varsity who will soon be the program’s new core.

“To get to see their growth and their leadership that they provided in this experience was unmatched,” Schwartz said.

Oak Mountain’s young players were thrust into big moments against players multiple years older than them. However, Schwartz said they held their own and saw big gains throughout the season.

Powell in particular saw big gains, going from shooting just below 90 to score a 78 on the first day of the state championship. Schwartz said that her improvements are a testament to her work ethic.

“She works on her game so hard, but she’s 13 and you would never know it,” Schwartz said. “She steps on to that golf course and she’ll take anything on, nothing fazes her, and her game has just grown exponentially.”

Beyond the individual growth from top players like Nickles, Powell and Oak Mountain’s three other seventh graders on the team, Schwartz has seen the team grow as a whole to face adversity and build a strong and successful foundation for the future.

“I think a lot of people say, ‘Oh, this is not good to have such a young team,’ or, ‘This would be difficult.’ Well, I don’t think so,” Schwartz said. “I think it’s an opportunity to bond, to grow together and rise up together. You have to know that you have others who can pick up when you fall down, the teamwork of golf, which is rare in our sport. But I think that happens by growing up together, and that’s what they’re going to be doing.”

One of those growth areas was how to handle stressful moments, none of which were bigger than the postseason.

The Eagles had to battle in a playoff hole against Spain Park to advance out of sectionals, with Nickles’ 30-foot par putt sending the team through to sub-state.

Once they got to sub-state, Oak Mountain faced a stiff test from defending state champion Grissom and beat it by just one stroke for the second-place spot into the state championship behind Nickles’ 4-under-par performance.

The Eagles also had to battle through tough weather conditions and a rain-shortened round two at the state championship while facing the toughest teams from around the state.

Time after time, Schwartz saw how her players stepped up in adversity, especially down the stretch when she believes they put everything together to play their best golf. Those challenges were something that she had prepared the team for throughout the season with one of their themes.

“I heard a professional golfer once say that he handled stress on the course by thinking that it was not a chance to mess up, but that it was an opportunity to do something awesome,” Schwartz said. “And that really was our theme this year, that stress was an opportunity to do something awesome on the course, and I really think that played out because as the season went on, I saw them in these tough moments on the golf course really step up.”

Those teaching moments have helped the team build the strong culture that Schwartz sought to create. Combined with their strong work ethic, athletic director Chris Blight believes that the team has a winning formula that will lead to years of success.

“They put so many hours in with practicing and playing, and I think that and the culture that coach Schwartz has created amongst the team is what’s helped that program reach new levels, and I’ve got no doubt that they’re going to be back there in the future,” Blight said.

While Oak Mountain finished in fourth with a score of 39-over-par behind the three other teams competing, Nickles and Powell’s top-10 performances helped the Eagles hold their own against three perennial powerhouses.

Schwartz  was proud of the fight that they showed throughout the two-day tournament.

“We didn’t win. But you know what? We were competitive. We were close,” Schwartz said. “And those other three schools are long time attendees. Many, many times, Auburn has won state championships. UMS has as well, and they won this year. But we were the newbies. We were the rookies, and the girls just stood up to the pressure tremendously.”

Blight agreed that their mental resolve has helped the team take the next step and become one of the top teams in the state.

“Not just the skills that they have, but the mental capacity to perform at the level that they did is really what has taken that program to the next level,” Blight said. “It’s a great balance of seniors and really, really young talent, and I think the future of our golf program is really bright.”

In the end, Schwartz hopes that results like this are only the beginning as the program that only started a decade ago starts to establish itself as a championship contender for years to come.

“I was so proud of them,” Schwartz said. “They proved to me that they really did deserve to be there and we’re a top-tier team, and the future is so bright for this group of young women.”