BOWLING GREEN, Ky. – Her team scuffling and running out of holes, Sacred Heart Academy golf coach Leslie Bender stopped looking at the scores and accepted that a fourth straight state championship wasn’t going to happen.
“I really and truly thought we had shot ourselves out of it,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m going to enjoy these last couple of holes with the girls … and it’s probably not our day today.'”
But behind two late birdies from a freshman and a clutch par putt from its senior leader, Sacred Heart rallied to force a playoff and then beat Henry Clay 21-23 on Wednesday to capture its fourth consecutive title in the Leachman Buick-GMC-Cadillac/KHSAA State Championships at Bowling Green Country Club.
“I still feel like it’s not real,” Bender said. “This is so, so awesome because the competition this year was fabulous.”
Sacred Heart and Henry Clay both finished with team scores of 645. Elizabethtown was third at 657, followed by Russell County (663) and Shelby County (671).
It was a Region Five sweep of the top trophies, as Shelby County senior Madison Thomas took the individual crown with a two-day total of 5-under-par 139. After shooting a 71 in Tuesday’s first round, Thomas had the best second round of anyone with a 68.
E’town junior Lauren Hartlage was second with a 143, followed by Pulaski County senior Elsa Moberly (144) and Madison Central junior Tristyn Nowlin (145).
Thomas has played in the state tournament every year since she was a sixth-grader.
“Seventh time’s the charm, I guess,” said Thomas, who struggled on the back nine at the regional tournament and finished fourth. “I didn’t have any pressure coming into the state tournament. I could swing freely and play like I wanted to. It wasn’t like, ‘Well, I won my region so I have to do just as well at state.'”
There was plenty of pressure in the team race, as Sacred Heart and Henry Clay swapped the lead for much of the day.
Henry Clay had taken a six-shot lead midway through the back nine before Sacred Heart made a final surge.
After a double-bogey at No. 16, freshman Erin Rowland birdied Nos. 17 and 18. With the teams tied and the final group on No. 18, senior Maddie Rose Hamilton made a 12-foot par putt. Henry Clay’s Leslie Ginter then missed an 8-foot birdie putt that would have given her team the title.
“That is the biggest moment of my life so far,” said Hamilton, who has committed to Notre Dame. “I still can’t believe that. It’s the best putt I’ve putted in my entire life.”
In the playoff, all five players from each team played No. 18, with the top four scores counting. Rowland was the only player among the 10 to make a birdie, helping Sacred Heart to its two-shot advantage.
Sacred Heart golfers, from left, Erin Rowland, Sara Jackie and Maddie Hamilton celebrate winning the Leachman/KHSAA Girls State Golf Championship on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014, at Bowling Green Country Club in Bowling Green , Ky. Sacred Heart Academy won the team championship. (AP Photo/Daily News, Austin Anthony)
“At the beginning of my round I wasn’t doing very well, but since I pulled it off in the end it was amazing,” said Rowland, who chose to play golf this season after a successful middle-school career in volleyball. “It felt great to help the seniors get their fourth win.”
Sacred Heart, which has a record nine state titles, became the third program in state history to win four straight. The Valkyries also accomplished the feat from 1984-87, and Glasgow did it from 1997-2000.
Hamilton was a member of all four championship teams during the current run.
“I wanted this so badly,” she said. “I knew from the start of the season it was going to be really, really hard to get it. I’m so happy we got it.”
Calloway County’s Anna Hack held a four-shot lead after firing a 67 on Tuesday, but her 79 on Wednesday opened up the race for the individual crown.
Thomas took advantage, despite back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 9 and 10. She followed with birdies on four of the next six holes, including what she called a “miraculous” shot on the par-4 16th. After she hooked her drive behind the trees, she used a 6-iron to punch out and landed with 4 feet of the pin before sinking the birdie putt.
“That kind of sealed it,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, just get through these last two holes.'”
Thomas, who has committed to the University of Memphis, became the second state champion from Shelby County, joining Candice Wiley (2005).
“Candice is like my big sister,” Thomas said. “She’s really influenced me a lot. I’ve always wanted to be like Candice. She’s that role model for every girl golfer coming out of Shelby County.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and followed on Twitter @kyhighs.