KENTWOOD – Elise Fennell wished that there were the traditional two days of play at last year’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final.
The East Kentwood sophomore golfer shot a 74 to tie for fourth in the event that was reduced to only one day of competition due to COVID-19 protocols.
“It was a little disappointing because I always play better the second round,” Fennell said. “I really wish there was another day.”
Fennel finished four strokes behind individual champion Katie Brody of Grand Blanc. However, her performance capped off a stellar freshman season and shared a glimpse of her potential.
Fennell was the top golfer in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red, sporting a nine-hole average of 35 while winning the midseason and postseason tournaments. She also received all-region and all-state honors.
So what will she do for an encore?
East Kentwood head coach Mike Ketelaar thinks the sky’s the limit for his No. 1 player.
“It will be tough to top what she did last year because she’s already built those accolades, and she had some really great rounds,” Ketelaar said. “I’m excited to see all aspects of her game click together.”
Fennell didn’t come out of nowhere.
She picked up her first club when she was 6, and started competing competitively three years later.
Fennell won the Golf Association of Michigan (GAM) Junior Stroke Play Championship when she was 13, and repeated the feat earlier this month at Forest Akers East Golf Course.
“It was nice to win after a long time because I’ve struggled the last couple years with my game,” she said. “I’ve been all over the place, so I was happy to play well.”
Playing against the best has helped shape Fennell’s game, and fuel her competitive drive.
“I just like competing and playing against the best in the state and the country, and winning is fun, too,” Fennell said. “It was a little rough when I started competing, but then it got easier.”
Ketelaar knew of Fennell’s golf prowess for a while and was anticipating her arrival to high school.
“I knew about her in my first year coaching,” he said. “She lives on our home course, and she was literally on the range for all of my practices the last few years. I knew about her pedigree when she was in sixth grade.”
Fennell admittingly doesn’t enjoy the grind of practice, but understands the benefits that come with it.
“I hate practicing, but I know I have to if I want to get better and improve,” she said. “I try to come out every day and work on something.”
While Fennell is shy off the course, she has a steely demeanor on it. It’s a part of her game that sets her apart, according to Ketelaar.
“She is such a focused competitor who plays a lot of summer tournaments and has had an array of competitive experiences,” he said. “She’s very stoic, composed and a brilliant student of the game. She is mature beyond her years in terms of her course management and her understanding of effective practice techniques, and just how she approaches the game is kind of baffling to me.”
Fennell has the unique ability of visualizing each shot.
“I just see where I want to hit the ball in my mind and hit it there,” Fennell said. “And then I go from there to my next shot. I focus on what I can do.”
Ketelaar said she shows little fear, no matter the difficulty of the course.
“She doesn’t see trouble when she plays,” he said. “She’s very confident in her visualization and lines and she doesn’t fear out-of-bounds or water. She doesn't see them, and all she sees is what she’s trying to execute. She’s very good at putting on blinders and focusing on what she needs to do. Negative outcomes don’t come into her mind.”
Fennell, who tied for second at last week’s Jenison Invitational carding a 70, has also stepped into a leadership role.
The Falcons are an inexperienced group, and Fennell shares her vast knowledge of the game with her teammates.
“I've tried to make them feel more confident being on the course and around the greens,” Fennell said. “I help them with their swings so they feel more comfortable, and I love to help people because golf is my favorite sport and what I enjoy.”
Despite her young age, Ketelaar has appreciated Fennell’s willingness to help.
“She’s really been hands-on with the other girls, which is cool as only a sophomore,” he said. “She’s taken on a leadership role and realizes being a part of a team means helping the other players improve. She’s been giving back a lot more this year.”
Fennell continues to have high aspirations for this season.
“I want to win Regionals and win state while going as low as I can,” she said.
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for four years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) East Kentwood’s Elise Fennell follows a drive. (Middle) Fennell, hitting out of the sand, is looking to build on last season’s fourth-place finish in LP Division 1. (Photos by Josh Fennell and Jim Swoboda, respectively.)
ROCKFORD – The Rockford girls golf team witnessed first-hand at last year’s MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final the type of scores it would take to compete for top honors in the state.
The Rams finished a laudable eighth at last year’s championship tournament, but their two-day total of 697 (338-359) put them well behind champion Northville, which posted team scores of 307 and 308 to claim a fourth-straight Finals title by 12 strokes.
Rockford entered this season with aspirations to close the gap, and it has done just that with a talented quartet of experienced golfers.
“Our top four are better than we've had in the past,” Rams girls golf coach Scott Kruisenga said. “Maybe we’re not quite as deep, but the potential for all four of these girls to be in the 70s is pretty exciting.
“We’ve been seeing those scores by Northville, and Rochester Adams and Saline, and that's some darn good golf.
“The girls last year saw some of the scores that needed to take place in order to have a shot at a state championship, and they really took it serious over the summer. They played a lot of tournament golf, and they want it and they believe they can do it.”
The extra preparation and enhanced desire has been evident with low scores and first-place finishes.
The Rams have rolled through the Ottawa-Kent Conference Red thus far with the league tournament looming next week.
A new school record was established as well when Rockford won the Kent County Classic with an impressive 306.
“We’ve played well, and it’s been fun getting to know everyone the last three years,” said junior Jessica Jolly, the team’s No. 1 golfer.
“Everyone is capable of shooting low, so when we can do our best on the same day it’s fun, and we’ve broken the school record multiple times in the past few years.”
Jolly is joined in the top four by seniors Mackenzie Davidson and Bridget Parlmer and junior Aubrey Wilson.
In addition to the Kent Country Classic, Rockford also won the O-K Red Midseason Tournament, the Sydney Carfine Memorial Tournament and the Greenville Invitational.
The Rams took second behind state powerhouse Brighton at the 36-hole Lober Classic at Crystal Mountain to open the season.
“They have really been playing up to their ability and been playing lights out,” Kruisenga said. “They’ve put a lot of hard work in, and I’ve had all four since they were freshmen so it’s been fun to see how they’ve been improving year by year.
“That has been the most exciting thing, seeing the improvement and dedication they are putting into get better.”
While the team had high expectations entering the season, Kruisenga said they have already exceeded his.
“I was thinking even if we stay the same as last year we would be a good team,” he said, “but everyone is playing better.”
Jolly has been the catalyst and broke her own school record earlier this season with a superb 67 at Quail Ridge Golf Course.
She tied for ninth at the LPD1 Final as a freshman, when Rockford finished fifth as a team, and just missed the individual top 10 last season.
“I’m pretty happy with how I’ve played, and I’ve definitely seen my average drop to the lowest it’s been since I’ve been in high school.” Jolly said. “Most of my rounds have been under par, and it’s been fun to make some birdies and get a chance at shooting pretty low.”
After struggling on the second day of last year’s Final, Kruisenga said the success his team had at the 36-hole event earlier this season should bode well for the future.
“We did that intentionally to try and get used to that back-to-back,” he said. “The girls fared really well. We lost by three or four strokes to Brighton, and we were tied going into the second day. They kept a good mental game and limited their mistakes.”
The Rams are anxious for the postseason, but refuse to take anything for granted. They want to finish the conference season strong before setting their sights on a Finals berth.
“Our first goal would be to win the postseason tournament, and then we hope to do well at Regionals and qualify for state,” Jolly said. “If we do, then we’re looking to perform well there and give ourselves a chance.”
Dean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Rockford’s Jessica Jolly powers through a drive during last season’s LPD1 Final. (Middle) Aubrey Wilson putts off the rough during the Final at The Meadows at Grand Valley State University. (Click for more from High School Sports Scene.)