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Half of last year’s six individual state champions return to the links for the 2019 fall season. That means the Wyoming golf community will be talking about the new champions that made the next leap as much as the reigning champions who went about defending their crowns.

Both of Class 4A’s champions graduated. That number goes up by one if you count Kelly Walsh graduate Nicole Klungness, who tied with Evanston graduate Kyra Sponenburgh through two rounds before falling in the playoff hole.

Dominant Torrington golfer Caleigh Essert leaves the door open for any other girl in Class 3A to finally seize the crown. On the boys side, however, a defending champion as a freshman will have to overcome a sophomore slump and a feisty field in order to repeat.

Both of Class 2A’s defending champions return. Their margins of victory were stunning in both the state tournament and through the 2019 spring season. But they won’t be the only good golfers on the course at the end of the season.

So here’s a deeper dive at some of the names that could standout during the six-week golf season:

4A Boys

Ethan Cates, Cheyenne Central: The Central rising senior will be the top returning 4A boys golfer after finishing six shots back from a state title. If that’s not convincing enough, Cates finished 43rd at the Junior Americas Cup over the summer in Alberta, Canada, with a combined 16-over-par 229.

Michael Pope, Cheyenne East: This rising senior finished three strokes behind Cates at last year’s state golf meet. He also played alongside former champion Blake Danni for years while winning team titles, so he knows what it takes to win it all.

Russell Sprecher, Kelly Walsh: He was Kelly Walsh’s third-best finisher at last year’s state meet among returning golfers but he had a big spring, including winning the Casper Invitational. He could go from tied for 10th at state to in the pack for gold. And if he doesn’t do it for the Trojans, Dane Rasmussen, Austin Neuman or Taj Sutherland certainly could.

4A Girls

Sophie Spiva, Natrona County: Following a promising freshman campaign, she’ll return to the Fillies’ lineup as its undoubted leader. A disappointing first round at the state meet meant her second-round best 79 could only bring her to eighth, but this year’s field is wide open and rounds like her debut 96 at the state meet are a rarity from her.

Maria Farnum, Thunder Basin: She trailed the lead by just three strokes after the first round of last year’s state meet before settling for seventh. Then she had an impressive spring that proved she’s serious this season. That puts the seasoned Thunderbolt in the running for gold this fall.

Megan Griffin, Kelly Walsh: A dependable source of scores for the three-time state champion Trojans, Griffin returns to the links as the top returning finisher from last year’s state meet. If the Kelly Walsh girls have any hope of defending their crown it’ll partly be because she steps up. And she’s got teammate Barrett Lloyd to push her for top score, which helps.

3A Boys

Karsten Simmons, Worland: This is where things get interesting. Simmons’ shining second-round performance at the state meet last year stole the show and the championship, leading the freshman to a two-stroke win. He was good all season but that round took him to new heights. The bar has since been raised for his sophomore season.

Jaren Calkins, Lander: Calkins led Simmons by two strokes after the first round of last year’s state meet. And he didn’t even have a bad second round, he just wasn’t as “can’t miss” as the other guy. He gets another chance at gold this year as the junior leader of Lander golf. Of course, that Tigers team will be loaded with talent and possible record-breaking team scores.

Jake Johnson, Star Valley: Look out for this sleeper on the links. The Braves were consistent, not great, last year, which didn’t attract attention. Johnson finished just two strokes out of third at last year’s state meet and could move further up the ladder as a junior.

3A Girls

Rachel Stoinski, Lander: She finished second in last year’s state meet, falling behind the untouchable Essert. She returns this year on the back of a second-round 86 at state and momentum built over a successful spring. And if she capitalizes this year, it could mean gold for the team.

Sierra Brubaker, Riverton: If you’re looking for Stoinski’s challenger, look no further than her Fremont County rival. Brubaker finished fifth at last year’s meet and is the second-best returner from that meet. She didn’t have the best spring but most of that season was paired against 4A competition.

Robyn Horath, Worland: A disastrous showing at last year’s state meet saw her slide into the middle of the pack but she’s since recovered. Horath consistently contended with 4A opponents throughout the spring and could be a threat to the leaderboard as a junior.

2A Boys

Hardy Johnson, Thermopolis: How could it be anyone else? He won state by 21 strokes as a freshman last year and appears a class above everyone else. More interesting than his race towards a repeat could perhaps be how close he comes to setting a class record.

Micah Shaner, Lusk: He finished second at state last year as a junior, barely beating the competition (everyone but Johnson) by a single stroke. He’ll look to end his high school career with a strong season this fall.

Perry Benedict, Wright: He tied for third last season, putting him on equal footing with Shaner. Anything can happen in the golf season, especially in the shortened one that Wyoming enjoys.

2A Girls

Vicky Van Vleet, Wright: As a freshman she won the state title by three strokes. And if she returns to the links this fall she’ll be the favorite to repeat. But with just 17 golfers competing at last year’s state meet, it’ll be interesting to see if she has much competition.

Adessa Lundberg, Lovell: This junior was great for the Bulldogs last season, falling just four strokes behind the champion. She returns this season re-energized after a lackluster basketball campaign.

Sadie Koltiska, Tongue River: She helped the Eagles pull off the upset for the conference title during the spring season, giving the Eagles a lot of momentum going into the fall. Add in the urgency of a senior year and she’s one that could stand out.

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Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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