By Tom Kendra
Special to Second Half
EAST LANSING – You could say that Spring Lake golf coach George Bitner was due.
Bitner, who started coaching boys golf at Spring Lake in 1968 and founded the school’s girls golf program in 1980, reached the pinnacle Saturday when his girls team rallied for the school’s first-ever golf MHSAA championship at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 Final at Forest Akers East.
“This is a different bunch,” explained Bitner, who calls himself 77 years young. “They are range rats that just want to get better. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
The Lakers delivered the old golf coach his first MHSAA title in dramatic fashion, erasing a six-stroke deficit to Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood after Friday’s opening round near the campus of Michigan State University.
Spring Lake sophomore Anna Kramer finished second overall with scores of 78 and 75, keying the Lakers’ Saturday charge as all five players improved their score from Friday for a surprisingly wide 18-stroke victory.
Spring Lake finished with a two-day total of 659, Cranbrook-Kingswood was second at 677, followed by defending champion Detroit Country Day (703), Grosse Ile (704) and Warren Regina (718).
“We were behind after the first day, but not by much, so our goal was for all of us to play a little better and that’s exactly what happened,” said Kramer, who drove the ball well all day to improve on her fourth-place Finals finish last fall as a freshman.
While it was a tough day for Cranbrook, which placed second for the third consecutive year, senior Cordelia Chan capped her stellar career for the Cranes by repeating as Division 3 medalist.
Chan fired her second consecutive 75 in the cold, windy conditions to hold off Kramer by three shots. Emily Barker of Lake Odessa Lakewood placed third at 160.
“I wasn’t actually swinging very well, but the course was open enough where it kind of played to my mistakes,” Chan explained. “I worked on my game last night with my dad so that kind of helped – with my tee shots, especially.”
Freshman Kate Cao was second for Cranbrook at 172 and senior Molly Wiener third at 174.
The same three teams finished 1-2-3 last fall as well, just in different order. Country Day and Cranbrook actually tied for first, but the Yellowjackets prevailed on the fifth-player tiebreaker. Spring Lake took third.
This year, Spring Lake was the team that made the biggest adjustments between Friday’s opening round and the close of play Saturday afternoon.
All five of the Lakers’ players improved their score by at least two strokes, with the biggest moves coming in the middle of the lineup. Junior Kayla Krueger shot 87-81-168 and senior Ginnie Olszewski shot 83-79-162. Junior Emma Conroy (90-86-176) and freshman Madelyn Nelson (90-88-178) rounded out the Spring Lake scoring.
Olszewski, the only senior in the Spring Lake top five, achieved her goal of breaking 80 on Saturday despite a quadruple bogey on her final hole. It was quite an improvement from her freshman year, when she shot rounds of 117 and 116.
“We went from basically nothing in my freshman year to state champs in my senior year, so that feels really, really, really good,” Olszewski said. “It’s so cool that it wasn’t just one of us. Everyone stepped up, which is awesome for Coach Bitner.”
Bitner, who was inducted into the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, has built his coaching philosophy around the acronym “kismif” – keep it simple, make it fun.
He believes that emphasis helped his girls relax and go out and play their most impressive team round of the season Saturday.
“I honestly wasn’t worried with the six-stroke deficit one bit,” said Bitner, who started his coaching career 50 years ago as the boys track coach at Holton High School in 1964. “The girls were so focused. They just went out and did it.”
Bitner, who gave a golf lesson to his wife, Eunice, on their first date, has had the privilege of coaching both of his children, Alyson and Andy, at Spring Lake. And just because he has now won an elusive MHSAA Finals championship, he has no plans to stop coaching.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I retired,” said Bitner, who will head with his wife next week to his winter home in North Fort Myers, Fla., where he stays until returning in early March to coach the Spring Lake boys golf team. “And besides, I have four of my top five players back and I had to leave quite a few more good players off for state.”
Spoken like a coach who is just getting started.
PHOTO: Spring Lake golfers pose with their first-ever MHSAA championship trophy Saturday at Forest Akers East. (Photo courtesy of the Grand Haven Tribune.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)