By BRETT MARSHALL
For more than two decades, Syracuse coach Rick Mathias has guided both the girls and boys golf programs, a Class 2A school sitting right in the middle of Hamilton County.
Mathias, who will be taking his Lady Bulldogs team to Emporia Municipal Golf Course on Monday for the Class 3-2-1A state tournament, remembers all too well what golf was once like in the far western edge of Kansas.
Since 1996 the Bulldogs have called Tamarisk Golf Course home. The 9-hole layout rests on the north bank of the Arkansas River and is named for the tamarisk or saltcedar trees that are native to the area along the riverbed.
Mathias remembers what the old Syracuse Country Club, located three miles west and one mile north of town, was like and is ever so grateful that for the past 15 years his teams have had a quality place to play, and more important, to practice.
"We did have grass greens there, but the fairways were buffalo grass and you'd hit your ball somewhere, go lift it and place it down on a clump of grass and hit it again," Mathias said. "There wasn't much of a place to practice either, so it was never a great place that the kids wanted to spend a lot of time at. Add in the fact that it was across the road from a feed lot and you get the idea the girls and boys didn't like spending extra time out there."
Once the new golf course opened, it didn't take long for Mathias to develop one of the top programs in small class schools in Kansas.
"It's a course that you've got to be creative with your shots," Mathias said. "You can't just hit it anywhere and score. We try to teach the kids to trust their swing on the driving range and then bring it to the golf course. Here, you better trust your swing or you'll shoot a high score."
His boys teams won the 1998 and 1999 state 2A championships. Tommy Zuzelski captured medalist honors at the 2006 state tournament. On the girls side, he's had two individual state champs — Charity Maune in 2002 and Kamie Rash in 2009.
But his girls teams have never brought home a state championship team trophy and he's hoping his 2011 squad will be good enough to make the trip to Emporia a memorable one. "Last year was a year in which we really had no thoughts of qualifying for state," Mathias recalled. "So when we did (qualify for state), it was a big deal and getting fourth was an even bigger deal."
He's had a runner-up and a third before as well as numerous fourth-place finishes.
His current players, most of whom competed on the team a year ago, have worked as hard as any team Mathias has ever coached, he said. And the rewards have been impressive.
Of the nine tournaments the Lady Bulldogs have played in this fall, they've won seven. The only non-title events in which they've played were the Lakin Invitational where they finished second to Goodland, and the Garden City Invitational, where they finished fourth, losing only to Garden City and Hays from Class 6A and 5A.
"The joy about this season is that the girls have been the most receptive group I've ever coached," Mathias said. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't look forward to practice. We practice three hours and there's never a complaint. They've listened to what we've talked about, to our teaching, and they've gotten better. Nobody thinks about just leaving. When we were always at the old course, you couldn't wait to get out of there."
His group includes senior Madison Brown, who claimed medalist honors on Monday when the team hosted the 3-2-1A regional tournament and won by more than 30 shots. His top five includes Stephanie Geven, Alia Neubrandt, Kiah Rash and Rachel Platt. Sydney Brown, Madison's younger sister, rounds out the varsity roster.
"I don't know if this is the best team I've had," Mathias said. "There's been teams who have had lower tournament scores, but this team has been the most consistent. And they've been the easiest to work with and the hardest working group. Coaching is a joy with this group. We have high expectations of our team, we work them hard. That's how you win."
With a full driving range facility, short-game practice area, putting green and a well-manicured golf course, the Lady Bulldogs have all the amenities that have produced strong teams for nearly two decades.
In addition to Syracuse, Holcomb's girls will be competing and the Lady Longhorns are the defending 3-2-1A state champions. The bulk of Scott Stegman's team has graduated, but the team finished third at the regional to earn a return trip to state. Sublette's Katelyn Marlin, who was fourth individually a year ago, was runner-up at the regional to Syracuse's Madison Brown, and should be among the individual favorites. Lakin, too, will be represented by three golfers.
The Class 4A state tournament will be played at Topeka Country Club with Ulysses and Hugoton taking part in the event.
See pairings in Scoreboard, Page D2.