The Spring Lake girls golf program has enjoyed one of the more successful runs in state history in the past four seasons. The three-time defending state champions returned some key performers this past fall, but some inexperience left their dominance up to question.
Senior Madelyn Nelson, junior Hannah Klein and sophomore Phoebe Saunders gave the Lakers a strong core group that would likely leave them in the hunt for regional and state championship aspirations.
Newcomers like Alana Sprague, Kate Galloway, Jillian Gable and Kayla Raschke were in the mix to fill out the lineup card and push the team toward their goal of a fourth straight state championship.
"We should have another solid team this fall,” said Spring Lake head coach George Bitner after an early season meet. "We have a strong core group with Madelyn Nelson, Hannah Klein and Phoebe Saunders, and we have some talented golfers behind them that just need a little more experience.
"If we can get some of those girls into the mid-40s, we should be OK. Madelyn had a 76 in her first match and Hannah had an 85, with Phoebe adding an 85, as well. That's a really consistent start to our scoring.
"Kate Galloway and Jillian Gable are relatively new to golf, but they have very nice natural swings, so I'm hoping with more practice time and some tournament experience, they will be contributors relatively quickly. We also have some talented golfers in Alana Sprague, Chloe Garhek, Zoe Russing, Kayla Raschke and Maggie Mahoney, who will make every practice a competitive environment.
"The team chemistry has been great so far, and I know the girls will all be focused on improving their own games, so they can help the team win."
The Lakers opened their regular season by defeating Division 1 Hudsonville in a dual match, 358 to 367. Madelyn Nelson led the Lakers with a 76, sophomore Phoebe Saunders added an 85 and Hannah Klein chipped in with a 92.
The team carried that momentum through the regular season, where they steamrolled the O-K Blue Conference for a second consecutive season.
At the final conference meet of the season at L.E. Kaufman Golf Course in Wyoming, the Lakers finished with a total score of 363 strokes over the 18-hole event.
The final victory put Spring Lake 280 total strokes ahead of second-place NorthPointe Christian. In the final standings, the Lakers finished with 80 points, ahead of NorthPointe at 67 and Coopersville with 60.
"It is true, this is special," Bitner said. "This being our second in a row in two years in the league is nice. This is the toughest public course in the state, so I give them credit for playing a very tough course, but they could have played better."
Klein earned individual medalist honors, shooting an 81 on the day. Nelson, who took second overall at 86, followed close behind. Saunders also earned a medal for her fourth-place finish at 89.
The effort secured All-Conference honors for those three, as Nelson finished with the lowest total score in the O-K Blue, followed by Klein in second and Saunders in fourth.
Galloway finished her round at 107, Raschke at 108 and Sprague rounded out the Lakers' varsity squad at 111.
At the Division 3 regionals, the Lakers showcased their top-end talent by taking first-place honors as a team and sweeping the individual podium for good measure.
The Lakers maneuvered through Katke Golf Course on the campus of Ferris State University to card a 372 on the day.
The Lakers got it done with star-power, as their top three golfers finished as the top three individual scores. Klein carded an 84 to take medalist honors, just ahead of Nelson at 87 in second place, while Saunders carded an 88 for a three-way tie at third place.
"I'm glad, ‘cause we only won by eight," Bitner said of the top-three sweep. "It is getting closer and scarier all the time."
Sprague finished with a score of 113, while Raschke turned in a 132 to round out the regional team.
The win was finally enough to appease Bitner, who was impressed with his players' focus in what was a closer match than expected.
"Four in a row feels good after we lost three starters from last year," he said. "We still have to work on the four and five spots, but we stuck with it and played fairly steady. I thought it would be a bigger spread, so did they, so we still have some work to do. I am hard to please."
The Lakers entered the Division 3 state finals with optimism that a fourth-straight state championship wasn't out of the question.
While the team put forth a valiant effort, the five-some would fall short of their ultimate goal, coming up with a third-place finish, shooting 709 strokes over the 36-hole, two-day event.
Macomb Lutheran North took home the overall title with 697 strokes in their first year competing in Division 3 after moving up from Division 4 at the start of the 2017 season. Grand Rapids South Christian took second at an even 700. The Lakers finished ahead of Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood at 718, while Flint Powers Catholic rounded out the top five teams at 749.
The result was understandably bittersweet for the Lakers, who had their hearts set on a title. The bronze-medal finish continues a half-decade of dominance for Spring Lake. After failing to qualify in 2012, the Lakers sandwiched their three-peat with a third-place finish in 2013 and this year's run at bronze.
Individually, Klein finished tied for sixth place overall with an 80 on Day 1 and 78 on Day 2 for a total score of 165.
Following Klein's medalist finish, senior Nelson carded a 170, Saunders put together a 177, Sprague finished with a 197, while Raschke rounded out the state team with a total score of 234.
"Third feels pretty good, because we were ranked seventh all year," Bitner said. "Very seldom does a team make a run like this. They should be proud of what they did, I know I am."
Despite not completing a historic four-peat, the Lakers did claim their 16th straight league title, stretching from the Seaway to Lakes Eight to O-K Blue, a fourth straight regional title and a tremendous regular-season performance. Those rare achievements all reflect the tradition of excellence pursued by the program.
"I can't tell you how many times we have made the state, although it is quite a few, or how many total league championships we have between the three conferences, but this year we won two invitationals, won the league, took first in the regional and third here at the state meet," Bitner said after the season concluded. "A lot of schools would pay big money to have that kind of success. I think these girls like success and that's what drives them."
Nelson was a key contributor in all three state championship runs, making her fourth trip to championship weekend this past fall. The end of the road was a bitter proposition, but the accomplishments were not lost on the senior.
"It is hard after winning three years in a row, I wanted to get the fourth one," she said. "We are happy with third, it isn't the worst thing ever.
"It is exciting and fun playing with people you know are talented and it is exciting to win. It is a lot more fun when you know you can go far. To have accomplished winning conference and regionals is nice. The one I really wanted was state, but it is cool knowing we were good enough to win those and that we came close this year.
"This run showed me how to be a team player, even in an individual sport. To win the big ones you have to play well as a team, and that helped me get really close to the girls on the team. I'm really happy I got to play with these girls, and am sad it is over."