The Panthers are about to get in gear.Western’s girls golf team has been idling its engine since taking second place at the Lafayette Jeff Regional last Saturday at Battle Ground G.C. That result qualified them for the state meet. The Panthers finally put the car in drive when they tee off at the IHSAA State Finals today after a week of practicing and waiting.Panther No. 5 player Chloe Barker will tee off first at Prairie View in Carmel, the site of the state meet. The senior opens on the 10th tee at 9:33 a.m. today, followed by junior teammate Ava Williamson at 9:42, junior Natalie Nutt at 9:51, senior Kylee Duncan at 10, and finally sophomore Elizabeth Mercer, Western’s No. 1, at 10:09. The two-day state meet concludes Saturday.
Mercer said the week’s emotions have been a mix.“I think a little bit excitement and anxious,” the 2020 all-state player said. “I’m just ready to get out there. The week before is a really long week, so I think it’s exciting to finally be here.”This week is a lot like last year, except it should be easier the second time around. Western’s girls golf program is making its 12th trip to state since 2000 and this week marked the 20th anniversary of the Panthers’ state title in 2001.The current group is making its second straight trip to state. All but one of Western’s starters today played at state last season, which helps this group stay relaxed. Barker is the only one making her first appearance at state.“Being there last year takes a lot of pressure off,” said Western coach Steve Hoppes. “These girls [in 2020] had never been there before. None of them had. Now all four of these girls have and it’s a completely different atmosphere now. You’re not intimated now.”Last season, the Panthers finished 15th out of 15 squads and shot 771 as a team.“I think it’ll help a lot,” Mercer said of last season’s experience. “Last year, it was all of our first times playing at the course. We were definitely inexperienced and it kind of showed in our results. This year, we can finish better just knowing the course. We’re all playing better so that’s helpful as well.”Hoppes said playing the Fall Preview tournament at Prairie View earlier this season — a tourney which brings together last year’s state participants and other contenders — helped this year’s squad get more familiar with the state course. Additionally, the Panthers got to play a practice round at Prairie View this week.
“The first time we played the finals, I’d only played it one time,” Mercer said. “I didn’t know the holes and where to hit the balls. Playing it more, and especially this week, seeing the course and how it’s laid out definitely eases the nerves.”After leading Western with a 36-hole score of 176 and tying for 58th last season, Mercer wanted to be more familiar with the course this year. Since last fall’s state meet, she’s played Prairie View approximately 10 times.“I think the hardest thing about it is the greens, not being familiar with them,” she said. “They’re a lot faster than the greens around here and a lot of slopes. And a lot of bunkers — you have to avoid those as well.”Hoppes has been at the helm for all 12 of Western’s trips to state and likes the approach this year’s team has taken.“They just keep working at it,” he said. “We had some bad ones and we’ve had some good rounds, but they just keep working at it. And their goal was the State Finals. That was their goal they set. Conference is nice and sectional is nice, but our goal is to get there, just to get there, and they did it and that’s what they want.”The Panthers repeated as Hoosier Conference champions on Sept. 11 and won a Western Sectional three-peat on Sept. 17.Hoppes said this team may finish 15th again, or perhaps move up a bit on the leaderboard to 14th, 13th or even 12th.“If we get somewhere like that we’ve accomplished a big goal,” Hoppes said. “Maybe we can knock off a couple teams. We’re very honest about it right now. We’re not going to beat the big ones.”Mercer was medalist at the Hoosier Conference with a 69 at Curtis Creek G.C. and repeated as medalist at the sectional with a 71 at Chippendale G.C. At the regional she shot 78 and tied for fourth with Northwestern’s Audrey Koetter, who qualified for state as an individual. Mercer echoed Hoppes’ hopes for the Panthers as a team and wants to make a bigger impact on the individual leaderboard this year.“Individually just probably top 15, top 10, but as long as I play well, I’ll be pleased with that,” Mercer said of her goals this weekend. “Team-wise, probably around 13th or something. As long as we all play well, we’ll be pretty pleased with that.”