Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 sports stories of 2011 as chosen by The Telegram staff.
By KEVIN THOMPSON
When the Syracuse girls golf team started its season in August, they didn't know just how good of a season it was going to be.
Coach Rick Mathias thought his girls would be competitive and maybe place in the top three at state.
They finished fourth last year, so a top three seemed reachable.
And then they went out and finished at the pinnacle of the state 3-2-1A championships. The Lady Bulldogs won the title by 10 strokes and were the only team to shoot under 400 at Emporia's Municipal Golf Course.
Oct. 17 will now be forever immortalized in the Syracuse trophy case, the trophy a manifestation of what turned out to be a magical season.
Madison Brown led three Syracuse golfers on the medal stand by placing third, shooting a 95, Alia Neubrandt placing ninth (98), and Stephanie Geven finishing 15th (100).
Kiah Rash fired a 105, Rachel Platt a 107 and Sydney Brown a 116 to round out the Syracuse scorecard.
Mathias said he got his Syracuse Lady Bulldogs to believe in themselves, and before he knew it, he had a state championship, his first in girls golf to go along with two on the boys side.
The secret was simple, he said. All it took was a group of girls who wanted to be successful. All he had to do was help them find ways they could be successful.
In other words, he had to coach.
"We knew from last year that they were starting to get better," Mathias said. He said he saw their potential and witnessed their attitude, so he decided to change his approach to coaching. He became more than a shot coach; he became somewhat of a sports psychologist.
"We had to teach the kids how to compete," he explained. "So every drill, everything we did, there was something to lose. So they had to compete to keep their spot."
That built-in competition ranged from simple drills or playing three holes to fighting in a playoff round during practice. The girls either held or earned a roster spot based on that until the third tournament, when he switched to using scoring averages.
By then, the competitiveness had planted itself in his girls' heads. They were a mentally tough group, he added, fun to work with, and no complaining.
"By mid-season they weren't just playing a course; they were stalking it. It was a cool thing to see that change," he said. "They looked like golfers. They were approaching it like a golfer should."
His team liked how competing and winning tasted and felt, and they wanted even more.
The Bulldogs averaged 383 strokes per tournament, 46 strokes better than the previous season with basically the same girls.
That attitude translated into winning eight of 10 tournaments. By the time state rolled around, winning was a definite reality, Mathias said.
"We believed that we were the team to beat. We never put that pressure on the girls. It was the process of one shot at a time that they bought into it," he said.
For the season, Brown said, she exceeded her own goals. Just placing in the top 10 and shooting in the 50s would have been fine, but even she didn't foresee such a good year.
She medaled in all 10 tournaments, averaged 46 strokes per nine holes, and shot her best score (84) in front of her home crowd at regionals. Cap that off with a third-place medal and team title at state.
That kind of success was the result of a focused practice regimen with good senior leadership, she said.
The practices, while long, didn't seem long. When everybody wants to be there, working to improve, time on the course passed quickly, she said. That all paid off at the state meet.
The Bulldogs will lose three players to graduation, but three are returning with the state title experience and the philosophy that got them there.
"We all wanted to be good, and we wanted to be a good team," Brown said. "We were ready to go to practice every day. We wanted to go to practice. We wanted to be around each other."
"What the seniors did and the mentality they laid for those girls will be a valuable thing for us next year," he said. "It was just a fun season."