GIRLS STATE GOLF: Spartans’ trying season culminates with championship

Grundy Center’s seemingly safe lead was slipping away in a hurry.

Hillary Samo’s ball sailed into the water twice for a quadruple bogey on her opening hole. Josie McMartin’s first swing led to an unplayable lie and eventual double. Lindsay Freeman landed in a sand trap on a par-3 and wound up with a triple.

It was more adversity than Rick Schupbach expected his team to face early in the final round of the Class 1A Iowa Girls State Golf Tournament after claiming a 14-stroke cushion Monday, though it paled in comparison to what the group had weathered as a whole coming into the season.

Other players stepped up, the team regrouped and the Spartans cruised to an Iowa-record 13th state team title, posting a winning tally of 355-356-711 Tuesday at American Legion Memorial Golf Course. New London was 33 strokes back for second (744) and Akron-Westfield (756) snuck by Bishop Garrigan by a single shot for third.

The initial struggles had Schupbach sweating a bit more than he wanted but he never doubted his team’s ability to come together and respond. He reflected back on his whole team meeting at Samo’s house shortly after the senior was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the life-changing words she gave her teammates.

“We sat around, we prayed together and Hillary spoke about how she was happy that she had cancer and it wasn’t any of her family members,” Schupbach recalled. “And then she looked around the circle and she said, ‘I’m glad it’s not any of you. I’m strong enough to get through this.’ It kind of gave them an understanding of the bigger picture and it was a great life lesson for them to understand.”

Samo and the Spartans put that life lesson to use Tuesday and saw the slow start for what it was – just a minor hurdle to overcome.

“You’re going to face a lot of problems in your life, how are you going to respond to it?” Schupbach said. “Hillary obviously responded to her biggest challenge but today was just a microcosm of that.”

Samo’s 84-89-173 carried her to sixth, while McMartin tied for fourth with a 84-87-171. Freeman sliced five strokes of her first round 92 to finish at 179 and Maddy Grineski knocked six off of her Monday tally, firing a 93 to complete the Spartan’s team score. Freshman Abby Hockemeyer excelled in her state debut with a 95-98-193 and Kate Ross (101-122-233) rounded out the unit.

North Linn’s Jessica Franson overtook defending champ Alexa Capesius for medalist honors, firing an 8-over 79 after Monday’s 76 to finish at 155 – two strokes ahead of the Bishop Garrigan senior. The two came into Tuesday tied at 5-over but Franson, who finished fourth in 2A last spring, rebounded from her own rough hole to rally down the stretch and become the first state champion in school history.

Leading by three strokes heading into No. 3, Franson surrendered her advantage with a triple bogey to Capesius’ par, though the North Linn senior made par on three of the next five holes to rally back.

“After (Hole 3) I knew I just had to keep it together because I knew I still had a chance,” Franson said. “I didn’t want to throw it away because of one hole. I still played my game the way I usually do and it ended up OK. My putting was probably the best it’s ever been. My driving wasn’t great but my putting made up for it.”

Known for her long game but without a course to practice on in Troy Mills, Franson frequently made the half-hour trip to Independence to tighten up her short game on the links. And now she’s proof that a town without a course doesn’t equal a town without a champion.

“It’s awesome knowing that no one else has ever done it,” Franson said, “and to show the other golfers coming up that someone can do it and that it’s possible if you just work hard.”

Samo showed many others what was possible through her own return to golf. And looking back on how much things had changed from a cancer diagnosis in July to a state title in June, Schupbach got choked up trying to put it into words.

“It’s very special,” Schupbach said. “It’s not even about playing golf, it’s about a young person’s life. … I’m just really happy for her, it’s what makes coaching very special.”

The back-to-back titles sent best friends Samo and Freeman out on a high note, while furthering the Grundy Center tradition of family and support both on and off the course.

“To know how far I’ve come and how far our team has come too,” Samo said. “To be a part of something bigger than ourselves is really cool.”

The Spartans’ following was recognizable all around the course as a slew of neon orange shirts trailed behind the Grundy Center girls.

Freeman first introduced Samo to the sport and has seen the senior develop from a newcomer that “was pretty bad” to a two-time all-state performer. In return, Samo gave Freeman and the Spartans a better perspective on the game that can be applied to life.

“A bad hole, a bad shot, it’s so small now,” Freeman said. “That’s probably a good thing for us because a lot of us have a couple bad holes and a couple bad shots. It’s just a good way for us to think – battle, grind out, it’s alright, nothing’s wrong.”

Tuesday’s state championship marked another chapter in the storied history of the Grundy Center girls golf program and though 12 titles came before it, No. 13 was just as exciting as the first for Schupbach.

“It doesn’t get old because it’s not about me, it’s about the girls,” he said. “And when you can share experiences with young people and see them reach and achieve goals, see their family with them and see the joy and pride that the parents have, that never gets old. It’s always a new group, I’m just excited for them.”