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BOWLING GREEN – They overcame the weather, the pressure and even a rare two-stroke penalty, and today the Shelby County Lady Rockets can celebrate a third-place finish in the KHSAA Girls Golf Tournament.
The Lady Rockets rallied from a poor first round to improve their scores by 22 strokes during a darkness-delayed second round at Bowling Green Country Club and at one point shared the lead Sunday morning before coming up short of their first state championship.
SCHS, a team without a senior, shot a two-day total of 702 to trail winner Green County (689) and runner-up Sacred Heart (695), the same two teams they were chasing when the second round began.
"We still didn't play the last four holes as well," said Coach Anna Simpson, whose five players were a combined 11 over par on No. 18, a 477-yard par 5, the longest hole on the course.
Simpson was tense throughout much of the final round, especially as she checked the live scoring, and SCHS moved from third to second place, even tied for first with Green County at one point. She said she was impressed by the way the Lady Rockets hung with the powerhouse teams.
"They don't look like they're going to be competitive, then they come in here and blow the competition out of the water," she said. "We are so close to this, and I think next year people will sit up and take notice. We'll be back.”
SCHS improved from a seventh-place finish in 2008, and it did so by battling not only the opposition and the elements – rain, wet grounds and a chilly wind – but also its own emotions.
Simpson's "bad news bears," as she calls the young team, were led Sunday by its two high school players, junior Michaela Manley and sophomore Shannon Harover.
Manley knocked 11 strokes off her first-round score to shoot 6-over-par 78, including nothing worse than a bogey, in the second round, which began Saturday afternoon shortly after the conclusion of the 7-and-a-half hour first round. Rain had delayed the start of the tournament from Friday to Saturday.
Manley said she had a better feel for the greens Sunday, whether she chipping or putting. Her birdie of the day, on No. 13, a 134-yard par 3, came after her drive landed 45 feet downhill from the pin and she knocked in the putt.
"I learned a lot from yesterday [Saturday]. I had a lot better short game," she said. "I was getting up and down for par a lot."
Simpson attributed her team’s turnaround to sunny, mild weather on Sunday and less nervousness, but whatever the case, the Lady Rockets came out with renewed focus in the second round.
That was not more evident with anyone than with Harover, the team’s No. 2 player, who parred the first three holes of the second round before fading light ended the day. She finished with an 83, 10 strokes better than her first round.
"I decided a 93 wasn't acceptable, so I was really determined," she said. "I think I just had more confidence. I made a few putts early."
Harover said she focused on beating the players in her group, Sacred Heart's Rachel Breit and Green County's Sydney Smith.
She had nothing but pars and bogeys until she played the telltale 18th, which she triple-bogeyed. Still, she handily won her group, beating Breit by 14 strokes and Smith by 4.
"We really wanted to win," Harover said. "No one expected us to do anything like we did."
The team’s No. 3 player, eighth-grader Jordan Webb held steady in her second round with a second consecutive 89, but Webb seemed frustrated throughout the round, and she said she made a point to slow down on her putting.
That was evident even if her shots to the hole were discouraging, like on No. 14, a 417-yard, dogleg, uphill par-5. At the dogleg the fairway narrows between two huge trees, and Webb parked her second shot in the center of the fairway.
But her approach landed behind a bunker on the steep side of the green, where she chipped into the rough about 40 feet short of the pin and left her par putt 5 feet short. Webb visibly shook off the nerves and took her time to make the putt for a bogey.
"This course played really tough, just with the length and rain and type of grass," Webb said. "I couldn't get my putts to go in. They weren't falling."
But the most unfortunate turn of events involved seventh-grader Madison Thomas, who was sitting at 10-over-par when she nearly holed her tee shot on No. 13. But before putting out for a par, she was penalized two strokes for tapping down spike marks past the hole.
She finished with a double-bogey on the hole and shed a few tears before posting a 90, a one-stroke improvement from her first round.
"Coach gave me a talk, and I knew that I wasn't out here to mope around," Thomas said. "I was here to win the State Tournament, so I came out and birdied the next hole."
The team’s No. 5 player, fifth-grader Lilly Young shot a 143 in her first State Tournament, though her score didn’t count in the team’s total. This was her first year playing golf, and Young dropped some 30 strokes from the beginning of the season.
"It was hard,” she said of the tournament “I think that I've improved a lot this year."
And of her unique age, she said, "I think it's pretty cool, because everybody's awesome."
Said Simpson: "If I could start practice tomorrow for next year, I would."