Yellow golf balls rolled along the putting green at Three Crowns Golf Club. The small flags to denote each hole were strewn wildly along the fringe.
With patience and silence, each golfer approached their ball and aligned their shot. Once the ball casually rolled to its destination laughter began in the face of sprinkling rain.
For years the Kelly Walsh golf program played second fiddle to its cross-town rival, Natrona County. The Trojan boys recently surpassed the Mustangs, and it was just last year that the KW girls won their first Tin Cup.
Now the tides have turned.
The members of the Kelly Walsh golf team prepared their short game for next week’s state golf meet, originally scheduled for this weekend but ultimately postponed due to the expected poor weather. Once at state, the Trojans have a chance to accomplish history.
Not since 1993 has a Class 4A school won the state golf title with both boys and girls teams.
“I thought it was going to be a special year,” KW head coach Craig Marsh said. “I thought after we took out the Riverton boys at conference (last year) and the girls finished strong with a state championship, I knew this was going to be a special year.”
Last year the Lady Trojans won the first golf title in program history while the boys finished just four strokes behind Riverton.
Both teams will be favored when the Class 4A state meet begins Monday in Evanston. The Trojans have won all but one invite they have competed in this season, combined.
Getting to this point has not been simply a two-year process. It’s the culmination of years walking the cart paths.
“We’ve worked hard over the last couple of years building our program,” Marsh said. “This isn’t just a six-week thing for me or the kids.”
His whole life
John McGinley started playing golf when he was 10 years old. For him, every moment out on the course is a retreat.
“Golf’s kind of been my whole life,” he said. “It’s kind of my everything, my outlet.”
He finished third at last year’s state meet and has yet to capture an individual title this year despite multiple top-10 finishes. He expressed hope that a championship in the fall and a good spring will attract college offers.
Through numerous tournaments in Colorado and in the Wyoming Golf Association this summer, he polished his game.
Coming close to beating Riverton last year did not sit well with McGinley. Driven by the desire to be the best, he approached his senior season with focus.
“It would be so nice bring home the state title,” McGinley said. “Last year we all felt confident that we played our best even though we fell a couple strokes short.”
Once on a golf course, it didn’t take long for Shea Hensley to find his love for the game. The senior has tried to emulate his game after his idol, Phil Mickelson.
To him, the joys of the game when things are going well are unparalleled.
“We get going as a team and everything starts going pure and you talk to your teammate and their putts are going in,” he said. “It’s really good. Everybody comes together and it leads to good results.”
He tied for 10th at the state meet last year and was determined to carry that momentum into this season. It worked as he won two of the six meets.
For Hensley, however, he was just as encouraged when a teammate won.
He sees the ultimate goal of winning a state championship as the culmination of countless rounds shot through the years. The Kelly Walsh boys haven’t won the title since 2012.
“We just have to go in no mercy,” Hensley said. “It’s something we’ve all been talking about all season and it would just mean everything to us.”
Josie Olson has a tendency to get frustrated easily. She can overthink an issue and it quickly snowballs into something that is seemingly out of her control.
Oddly enough, she finds serenity on the golf course.
“It’s a lot of one shot at a time,” she said, “not taking things too fast and not getting ahead of yourself. That is very important to me.”
Olson knows that when a golfer gets frustrated, the round can fall apart.
That has forced Olson to approach each shot with calmness. It’s now what she loves about the game. No matter how stressful everything else is, she finds peace on the links.
“It helps a lot mentally with that aspect and I enjoy coming out here after school and I get to go golf,” she said. “It’s what I do.”
As a sophomore she finished just one shot behind Natrona County’s Kynsie Valdez for the state championship. Her score helped the Trojans capture their first state title.
This year she has finished in the top 5 at every meet, including two wins. She was beaten by a teammate at all but one of the tournaments she didn’t win.
“It pressures me to want to be the best and be better,” Olson said of her competitive teammates. “I’ve been really successful in my sophomore and freshman year, and having my teammates come up and share that excitement and being better than half the state, it’s pretty exciting.”
It’s the mental challenge of golf that Steven Ellbogen admires. It’s the times of triumph and times of adversity, and the times where both of them happen within moments of each other.
“It’s a fun game, don’t get me wrong, but to play golf you need to have a good mental game,” Ellbogen said. “You have to be optimistic. I think that’s some life lessons you need to know and I think that’s carried me to love the game.”
The senior has been a reliable member of the team for years. He finished 17th at state last year, just one shot behind teammate Taj Sutherland. This season he has been a fringe top-5 golfer at nearly every meet.
But with great expectations come lofty pressures.
The challenges of being at the top are difficult, and for high schoolers, it is sometimes overwhelming.
But that’s all mental. And that’s what Ellbogen likes.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just hit the shots. It could be worse. You have teammates that will help you and back you up, so just have fun.”
Fighting back nerves
Before Anna Johnson strikes her first tee shot, she prays. In fact, she prays a lot before her round begins.
She replays words her father has told her to settle herself. Repeating the mantras “one shot at a time” and “get yourself in a good spot”, she finally squares her shoulders to the ball.
“I think that it’s more nerve-racking for me on my first tee shot because it gets in my head a lot,” Johnson said. “I think this year, it’s my very last state, it’s going to be more nerve-racking and more emotional, but I’m more excited than anything.”
The lone senior on the girls’ squad, Johnson has been a constant presence in the top 10 and won the Rock Springs Invitational.
Last year was special for Johnson. Winning a state championship for the first time in school history was something she can always say she accomplished.
Winning it again during her senior year, that’s something else entirely.
“I think it would be the best thing in the whole world,” she said. “That’s all I’ve wanted to do is win my senior year. It was great to win last year, but this is my senior year.”
For Kelly Walsh
Johnson has played a lot of golf in her life. Inevitably, she has sometimes golfed with a group of people that just weren’t fun to be around for four hours.
That’s one thing she doesn’t have to worry about with her current teammates.
“If we had to play with people we weren’t best friends with then it would be way harder because it’s all friendly competition,” she said. “We have a lot of team bonding activities. It’s been really fun, it’s the best group of girls and I love them.”
Olson mentioned what a championship would mean to her, as well as how much more it would mean to Johnson.
For the boys, the seniors are excited for a few final rounds before handing the torch down to the younger guard.
“(A championship) would say that we’re the top team in the state,” Ellbogen said, “and we’re going to have the top team in the state for the next 2-3 years.”
Added McGinley: “We’ve got a lot of good underclassmen and they can build off of what we’ve done.”
Some will be done chasing state titles as Trojans by the time the final score cards are handed in on Tuesday. Others, like Olson, have just begun writing their own legacy.
The boys have had to wait four years since their last championship. The girls had to wait decades for their first trophy.
Considering the talent that filled the putting green for practice, it may not be another 23-year wait for a Class 4A golf program to sweep state titles.
“It would mean a ton to me, personally,” Marsh said. “It would mean a ton to the kids and it would mean everything to Kelly Walsh and to Kelly Walsh golf. It’s been a long time coming and we’re doing everything we can to get that done.”