By BRETT MARSHALL
When Slade Loewen started his junior season in golf for the Ingalls Bulldogs, he was less than thrilled with the status of his game.
But things gradually improved somewhere at the mid-point of the short season, and by the end of the season, he was playing the best golf of his life.
Nothing, though, prepared him for what happened on May 18 at The Highlands Country Club in Hutchinson, a monsterously difficult golf course that usually wreaks havoc with players who try to conquer its narrow fairways that are lined with native deep grasses.
But Loewen managed to avoid most of the problems of the golf course that day, eventually shooting an 8-over-par 80, which was good enough to provide him with the Class 1A state championship.
For that accomplishment, Loewen has been named The Telegram's 2012 Spring Sports Athlete of the Year.
"The early part of the season wasn't as good as I thought it would be," Loewen said recently. "I didn't start out so great."
But at the Cimarron Invitational, which is Loewen's home golf course, he finished second in the tournament and seemed to get himself on track.
"Once I got to league and regionals, my game got better," Loewen said. "I think the short game got a little better, and my long game got a lot better. My approach shots seemed to improve a lot and that's what helped my game get better."
At the May 11 regional tournament, also at Cimarron, Loewen got off to a shaky start with a 4-over-par 40 on the front nine before rallying for a 38 on the incoming nine to finish second to Ashland's Corey McCann.
"I still didn't think too much about a high finish at state," Loewen said. "There were a number of players who were shooting better scores than me."
But Loewen said a key was getting two practice rounds on the challenging Highlands course. In his first tour of the course, he shot a 93, but two days later and two days prior to the state tournament, he improved nine shots to an 84.
"Things didn't look too good after that first practice round," Loewen said. "But the second practice round gave me some confidence. I think I felt much better about the tournament."
Loewen said he was likely the only player in the field that didn't hit a ball into one of the lateral hazards and incur any penalty strokes during his 18 holes.
"Quite a few kids that I had played with and had lower scores, found the course pretty tough and hit it into the hazards," Loewen said. "That was the most critical thing for me."
And despite the fact he didn't have any birdies on his scorecard, he managed to have just one double bogey and make plenty of pars.
"I think you just have to get locked down and keep your mind on it or you'll have trouble playing the game," Loewen said. "I'll get a whole new set of clubs for next year, so I'm excited about getting fitted for them and seeing how my game develops for next season."
One thing's for sure, he'll know how to win a state championship. He'll get a chance to defend it during his senior campaign.
The remainder of the Spring Sports All-Area team comes from the sports of tennis, soccer and swimming.