By BRETT MARSHALL
When the 2013 girls golf season started in late August for the Garden City Lady Buffs, it was a well-known fact that senior Abbi Shaddix was the top player, as well as one of the best in Kansas.
The remaining five players were four returners and a freshman and second-year coach Melinda Base had no idea what the group might accomplish.
On Monday, when the sun set at Buffalo Dunes Golf Course, not only did Shaddix confirm her position as one of the state's best golfers, but the Lady Buffs produced their best effort of the year, claiming the third-place trophy against 11 other teams from across Kansas.
The Lady Buffs' team total of 355 was just two shots back of nemesis Maize's 353, and well back of champion Topeka-Washburn Rural, whose Junior Blues finished the year out with a perfect 10-0 team record.
Shaddix rallied with a 2-under-par 34 on the back nine to counter a 40 on the front, and her 2-over-par 74 was good for a runner-up finish to defending champion Audrey Judd of Olathe Northwest, who sizzled throughout the day and finished with a 1-under-par 71.
"Certainly at the start of the season, we didn't expect this," a smiling Shaddix said afterward. "The girls played great and I think we were just comfortable playing at home. It's 10 times better than anything I could have hoped for — second individually and a team trophy — amazing!"
Perhaps the most amazing performance of the day came from sophomore Hannah Leiker, whose 90 tied her for 19th and earned her an individual medal as well. What's so good about her 90? Her previous best score this season was a 107, an improvement of 17 shots.
"It was awesome. I can't hardly believe it," Leiker said. "This is the best by far I've played. First time I broke 100 in a tournament. Coach (Base) just said to go out and do my thing and see how things would go. I'd see some of the girls and try to find out how they were doing. I think we're all a little surprised, but we knew we were capable of this. We improved a lot during the season."
Junior Lindsay Bradstreet was next with a 93 and the fourth counting score, 98, was shared equally between freshman Danielle Gaspar and senior Megan Steward. Sophomore Kendra Martin had a non-counting 105.
All in all, it proved to be one of the best days in what has become an annual pilgrimmage for the Lady Buffs golf team.
Since 2008, GCHS girls golf has finished no worse than seventh in the team standings, with its 2011 runner-up the best finish. For the fifth time in six years, the Lady Buffs had a top 10 individual finisher.
"We all worked really hard to get better, and it's exciting," Martin said. "It was really stressful at times, but I think we overcame that fear that we might not even make it to state. This is amazing to be able to live up to expectations, and handle the responsibility of playing for a great program."
Steward, the other senior member of the Lady Buffs, was equally thrilled with where she and her teammates ended the day, her final high school tournament.
"Placing third is just awesome," Steward said. "I think we got better when we got our focus. It was a little intimidating to be playing in front of so many friends, but it was neat they got to watch. We just were able to kick it into high gear and lay out some good scores."
Four of the six players improved their back nine scores from the opening front nine, including Bradstreet, whose 93 was one of her best efforts of the season.
"It wasn't my best score, but with it being state and playing here at home, it was one of my best rounds," Bradstreet said. "My driver and irons were good, I struggled with my short game, but this feels amazing. Comparing scores with other teams and then actually seeing it makes it exciting for our team next year, too."
And for the freshman Gaspar, things couldn't have worked out much better in her first year of high school golf.
"I could not have imagined this when we started the season," Gaspar said. "It's been a really, really good experience my first year. We've improved a lot and done a lot of work to get better. Getting to know each other and having fun. We love playing Buffalo Dunes, and it was a good advantage to have."
The Lady Buffs finish even had Base grasping for an explanation for how her team played.
"I can't explain how proud I am of these kids," Base said. "I think part of the success came when the expectations got greater and greater as the season progressed. Throughout the day, I wasn't sure how we'd do, but the girls played great."
Of all the results of the day, though, it was Leiker's 90 that stood out in the Lady Buffs' run to third place.
"Her score stood out by a mile," Base said of her sophomore. "She's had that potential but just couldn't do it in a tournament. Today, I just told her to go play, have fun and see what happens. That's an amazing thing to beat your best score by that much."