By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
MIDLAND — Alexie Flaminio has seen how the influence of a few highly motivated, hard-working teammates can transform a team and its expectations.
As a freshman in 2012, she was on a Midland Dow golf team that wasn't a factor on the state level. The Chargers finished eighth of 14 teams in their regional tournament, 31 shots out of the third and final qualifying berth for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final.
This was the norm at Dow, which had qualified for the finals only four times and made the top 10 only once during the first 41 years of the MHSAA's sponsorship of a girls golf tournament.
"We didn't have a lot of depth on the team," Flaminio recalls. "We had a few good players. Our top three was pretty good. I know I wasn't playing as well as I am right now. We had two seniors and a sophomore who were the only people who scored on our team."
Things changed radically at Dow the following season.
That's when senior Kharissa Carras made the decision to play golf after three years on the volleyball team. She was joined on the team that year by her freshman sister, Stephanie. They led Dow to the first of its two straight regional championships and the best finish in an MHSAA finals tournament in school history, a third-place showing in Division 2. Kharissa was the regional medalist and both sisters made the top 10 in the final.
Dow followed that up by taking fifth in Division 2 last fall, with Stephanie Carras placing fourth individually. Kharissa moved on to play college golf, but freshman Alexis Carras joined the team as a solid No. 2 golfer.
"They set an example for us, because they're out there every day of the week practicing," Flaminio said. "I wasn't practicing as much my freshman year. Once I got to my sophomore year, I started practicing more. The three of us were practicing quite a few days a week. They have a work ethic that is ridiculous for high school. They live and breathe golf. They're doing really well for us."
Dow coach Doug Bradford also cited the influence of the Carras girls as a primary reason why Dow is suddenly a state power in girls golf.
"It kind of fed into some of the other kids where they're putting time into it," Bradford said. "Maybe they wouldn't go practice on weekends or do those things. They do it now because that's the example that's been set. It's been interesting to watch the change in mindset. Tennis has been been big for both boys and girls. Several years ago, we had Kim Dihn, who went to Wisconsin and was as an individual (MHSAA Finals qualifier in 2009). We've had some good individuals, but we haven't grouped them together like we have now."
The Carras sisters work hard at their craft, but it doesn't feel like work to them.
"I love golf," Alexis said. "I usually spend about three hours a day on average doing golf. It's just a lot of fun. I started about two or three years ago very competitively, but my whole life golf was there. It was always an option. For college, not many girls play golf. I was very intrigued by it, because my older sister Kharissa was playing it. I loved the sport. We could play with our parents; we could play with our grandparents. It seemed like a sport you could play for life."
Now that the Chargers have established themselves as an elite team in Division 2, they are working toward taking the final step and winning an MHSAA championship.
The state's coaches certainly think Dow has an excellent shot at the title, ranking the Chargers No. 1 in Division 2.
"We've been in the top five the last couple years," Bradford said. "In that situation, you're kind of used to being up there. It's not a bad thing. It's obviously nice recognition, but there are a lot of good teams in Division 2 throughout the state. When you're first moving up, you do like to sneak up on people, but now that we've been there people know about you and what to expect. Birmingham Seaholm could easily be ranked No. 1. Okemos is very good. We just saw them at a tournament at Holt. They shot 328 and beat us down there, so they're right there. South Lyon has a nice team."
If things work out the way she hopes, Stephanie Carras could win two MHSAA titles at the LP Division 2 tournament Oct. 16-17 at Bedford Valley in Battle Creek.
As a sophomore, Carras was fourth in Division 2 last year behind two seniors and a junior with a score of 87-75–162 at Forest Akers West in East Lansing. As a freshman, she was third in Division 2, four strokes off the lead after shooting 79-80–159 at Forest Akers East.
"I hope to win states this year," Stephanie said. "I think I'm ready. Before, I wasn't mentally prepared. After seeing I really can shoot these scores to win the tournament, I think I'm better prepared this year."
Stephanie Carras leads Dow with an 18-hole average of 76. Alexis Carras averages 80, Flaminio 85 and sophomore Mina Fabiano 95.
"It makes golf so much more fun when you have your teammates come in with a great score," Alexis Carras said. "It makes everything so much more exciting."
Dow has sought out tough competition in its quest to be prepared for the postseason, which will begin with the regional tournament on Oct. 7 at The Emerald in St. Johns. That regional includes sixth-ranked Flushing and ninth-ranked St. Johns.
The Chargers placed second on a tie-breaker to Novi, the sixth-ranked team in Division 1, in the two-day Bob Lober Invitational in Traverse City. Dow beat defending Division 2 champion Seaholm in the highly competitive Troy Invitational, placing fourth behind Rochester (No. 1 in Division 1), Troy (No. 2 in Division 1) and Lake Orion (No. 4 in Division 1).
Dow won the Flint Powers Catholic Invitational, which also served as the first Saginaw Valley League jamboree. The Chargers finished ahead of Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood (No. 3 in Division 3) and Powers (No. 6 in Division 3) in that tournament. The Chargers also won their own tournament.
"As the competition gets better, it gets harder," Stephanie Carras said. "But the more you do it, the easier it gets."
Bradford hopes that playing a tough schedule, combined with the experience of two MHSAA Finals, serves the Chargers well come mid-October.
"I think it will," he said. "Any time you get to regionals and get to state, there are still a little bit of nerves. They've been through it and know what to expect, so hopefully we can play well at regionals and get a chance to go there again."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Midland Dow's Stephanie Carras fires a shot out of a bunker during last season's Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final at Forest Akers West. (Middle) From left, coach Doug Bradford, Alexis Carras, Mina Fabiano, Tatum Matthews, Morgan Deiters, Caroline Szabo, Alexie Flaminio and Stephanie Carras. (Below) Alexie Flaminio lines up a putt; she scored third for the Chargers as they finished fifth overall.