By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
HARRIS – Paxton Johnson only achieved half of her goal in her final high school golf match here Wednesday, but it was a special half.
The Escanaba High School senior won her fourth straight Upper Peninsula Division 1 golf championship to join two other four-time winners. The southpaw posted a sharp 4-over-par 76 at Sweetgrass Golf Club, which next month will host its ninth straight Symetra Tour women's professional golf tourney.
Menominee High School dashed Johnson's second goal by winning the team title, ending Escanaba's three-year title reign. The Maroons shot a dazzling 385 to finish a whopping 27 strokes ahead of the Eskymos.
"I wanted the team to win so bad," said Johnson. "I can honestly say I wanted the team win more than the individual win. I tried to encourage my teammates and play as best I can and try to pull it off."
Johnson, who has received a golf scholarship to Northern Michigan University, joins Marquette golfers Kendra Palmer (1996-99) and Carley Saint Onge (2008-11) as the only four-time champions. "It is an honor. I really look up to both of them," she said.
"It is amazing. It was a really great four years," Johnson said as she relaxed outside under the best spring conditions to date, sunshine and 81 degrees.
She finished 11 strokes ahead of runner-up Emma Hofer of Menominee and knew she was the heavy favorite but pushed the pressure to win aside. "I was competing against myself. I knew if I stayed out of trouble and out of the bunkers I would be okay. I wasn't thinking of anything else, just thinking about one shot at a time," she said.
Johnson overcame a pair of consecutive short putt misses – for par and birdie – on holes 12 and 13, respectively. "I tried not to get too discouraged and tried to let it go," she said, still visibly perturbed at those miscues after the round ended. "I didn't let it get in my own head. But if I had capitalized around the green I would have played much better."
She also missed a good opportunity on the short No. 14, leaving her tee ball short-left and then chipping over a bunker to the back fringe before two-putting for par. "I'm not upset with par, but the hole should be a birdie. But pars are good. You can't get too mad at par," she said, although it was obvious she was still peeved at herself later.
Johnson, who won the Upper Peninsula Ladies Golf Association crown last year, stayed within herself most of the balmy day by following her primary creed. "I was kind of in a zone. I focused on my game. Swinging freely is my best thing," she said.
Escanaba coach Brian Robinette said Johnson "is fundamentally as sound as any high school player." He also said the "consistency, the way she hits the golf ball" is a key. "She is a high IQ golfer. She can regroup (from a bad stretch) and can leave the past in the past. You rarely see her follow up a bad shot with another bad shot."
He is also impressed with the way "she can compress the golf ball and works right through the bag, driver to wedge."
Two of her playing partners, Emma Hofer of Menominee and Morgan Rhodes of Marquette, copied Johnson's approach by paying attention to their own shots and were not overwhelmed by her dominance.
"I know she is better than me. I'm totally fine with that," said Hofer, a frequent opponent the past four years. "I try to get closer to her and if I'm close to her I'm fine."
Rhodes said playing with Johnson helps her: "It makes me a better player playing with someone more advanced. I just don't compare myself to them."
Menominee has won 15 U.P. girls titles, but this was the first since 2008 and the first for coach Tony Hofer, who has two daughters (Emma and Josie) on the team.
"All year we've had all five girls score well. Different girls step up and do something good at every meet," he said, noting four seniors have led the way as they chased Escanaba. "We were not very good four years ago, but they stuck with it. This year we knocked off a handful of strokes here and there."
PHOTOS: (Top) Paxton Johnson of Escanaba won her fourth straight MHSAA Finals title Wednesday at the Upper Peninsula Division 1 golf tournament at Sweetgrass Golf Club in Harris. Johnson, the third U.P. girl with four straight titles, posted a 4-over-par 76. Johnson tees off on the par-3 island green, No. 15, which she parred. (Middle) The Menominee Maroons won the Upper Peninsula Division 1 team title. The team includes, front row from left: Maddy Derusha and Emma Hofer; standing from left, Arikah Bellisle, Josie Hofer, coach Tony Hofer, Olivia Badker and Emma Antilla. (Photos by Dennis Grall.)
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.)