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Familiar ground: Soaking rain and a state championship

Covering state championships never gets old.

The first I ever had in this business was for the Atlantic News-Telegraph in 1983, when Bruce Henderson’s girls track team claimed the 2A title during a downpour in Drake Stadium. Not many folks were left during the trophy presentation, but I remember the Trojanns and coach Henderson were giddy in their delight.

The night before, Deb and I had celebrated our first anniversary in Des Moines with dinner and champagne. Then she drove back home the next day as I went to cover the track meet.

Not a whole lot was different last weekend. This time, Deb and I spent Friday night in Des Moines, celebrating our 31st anniversary. I dropped her off at Jordan Creek Mall for the day as I drove up to Ames through a terrible thunderstorm, hoping the golf meet would continue and not revert back to Friday’s results.

(As you can tell, Deb has had to defer to high school sports quite a bit in 31 years!)

Again, the team I was covering seemed to be about the only people enjoying themselves in the miserable weather, as the Panthers lifted themselves from second place to a championship over defending champion Decorah by just three strokes.

People were cold, soaked through their shoes and socks and layers of clothing. Fortunately for me, and my camera equipment, the worst of the rain had blown through by the time I got on the course.

I gained a lot of respect for individual champion Carson Whittington and the rest of the Panthers, for the level of their play in such horrible conditions. Besides battling high winds, there was standing water on just about every fairway. The greens held up pretty well, but several golfers told stories of dead-on putts that fell two inches short, probably the result of the ball dragging through water.

It was bogey golf conditions, at best, and yet Whittington came in with a 4-over 75 after having a tough time with Friday’s winds in carding an 80.

As scores of the previous day’s leaders started to come in with scores in the 80s, Whittington was visibly showing nerves as he realized his championship dream might be materializing right in front of him.

Then I made the remark to coach Jan Lesan, “Surely you’re in the hunt for at least one of the (team) trophies, aren’t you?”

“I think we’re in the hunt for the big one,” Lesan said.

She was prophetic. With a 647 score, the Panthers were three strokes better than a surging Decorah team. Clear Lake faded to 653 in third.

Some Creston players reported hearing complaints from Clear Lake players about having to play in the rain, probably unable to dismiss the fact they would be champions if it were cancelled.

It was fun to be there as anticipation grew among the Creston/O-M players and their supporters. Finally, when an official walked over to Lesan and quietly told her the final results, before it had been written on the big board in front of everybody, I saw her smile and take a congratulatory fist-bump from the bearer of good news.

Then I knew I had a big story on my hands, and it was time to get to work.

Coaches Lesan and Kristopher “Kritter” were gracious with their time, as well as all of the players, despite the fact they probably would have enjoyed getting somewhere warm and dry.

The trophy seemed to have magical qualities. Every time someone touched it, they broke out in an ear-to-ear grin.

Seniors Trey Thomsen and Kainen Somers, on the final day of their high school athletic careers, achieved the ultimate team experience. In a senior class that showed a lot of talent in multiple sports, but experiencing some disappointing setbacks in sports like football and basketball, the state title was sweet indeed.

For Whittington, it was the culmination of a long journey designed to capture a high school state championship. His tireless work on his game, and busy summer tournament schedule, had finally cashed in.

I had interviewed him as an eighth-grader, when he talked of challenging battles with then assistant coach Jim Calkins, and how he thought there were enough good players coming up that the team could make a good state tournament run.

He was right. And the guys appreciated the fact that coach Calkins, now at North Fayette in extreme northeast Iowa, made the trip to Ames and tromped around in his orange poncho, keeping up on their progress during the rainstorms Saturday.

This team had many of the same qualities as the other state championship teams I’ve covered in other sports. It featured tremendous depth of talent, instead of just one or two standouts. In fact, there were probably a couple of Panther team members who weren’t even in the state lineup who were capable of finishing in the top 15 at state, individually.

So, despite the loss of Somers and Thomsen from this year’s state squad, there is plenty of optimism in the Panther camp about coming back to defend the title.

As mentioned, Decorah also has a good thing going in its golf program, and one of the key players is junior Bryce Pierce, son of Scott and Lori Pierce, formerly of Afton. Scott Pierce was East Union’s football coach for six years when they lived in the area from 1988 to 1997. He was head track coach nine years. Lori taught at Creston Middle School and did some cross country and middle school coaching.

Bryce,who was born in Creston, now has a gold, silver and bronce medal from the state golf meet the past three years. The Vikings had four seniors playing Saturday, but Pierce and freshman Sam Sacquitne (12th place with a 162) will form the nucleus in 2014. Pierce shot 84-83 — 167. He is quarterback for the state-champion Decorah football team.

Centerville is a factor, of course, with longtime Whittington rival Alex Moorman back for his junior year in 2014. Moorman was medalist as a freshman, then tied for second just a stroke behind the Panther junior this year. Three of Clear Lake’s top four players were sophomores, so you know they want another shot at the Panthers.

It shapes up to be an interesting year in 2014 for Class 3A golf.

Now, if only the weather can give us a real spring. And a sunny state tournament!

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Email: lpeterson@crestonnews.com

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