By KEVIN THOMPSON
When coach Rick Mathias started the girls golf season this fall, the most he envisioned was getting his girls to be competitive and maybe place in the top three in state.
Then something happened along the way.
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.
So what was his secret?
That part is simple. Just get a group of girls who want to succeed, help them see how they could find success, and sit back and watch what happens.
The Bulldogs won the state 3-2-1A championship on Oct. 17 by 10 strokes, the only team to shoot under 400 in the tournament, played at Emporia Municipal Golf Course, culminating what could only be described as a magical season.
"We had a really good season," he said. "We knew from last year that they were starting to get better. Getting fourth at state (last year), we thought we might have a chance to finish in the top three."
But first place, Coach?
"We really didn't see it coming," he laughed.
But what he saw was the potential and the attitude, so he decided to change his approach to coaching.
"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 could have been anything from a simple drill to playing three holes or 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 scoring average.
"The change of philosophy helped them out, and they loved it," Mathias said. "We got them to understand that working hard is fun. That change in philosophy and change in their 'want' to get things done changed their whole season."
His team, he added, liked how competing and winning tasted and felt, and they wanted even more.
The team averaged 383 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.
One example of teaching the game was the punch shot. Mathias said they taught the girls how to hit the shot, then went to hole five at their home course of Tamarisk and played the shot.
"That shot worked at state," he said. "Everyone had to hit punch shots. And it paid off. It paid big dividends."
They were a mentally tough group, he added, fun to work with, and no complaining.
The biggest thrill he got, Mathias said, was watching how his girls approached the game with their new-found skills.
"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."
Winning the regional meet at their home course was good, Mathias said, but what defined the team was when they hosted the final regular season meet just days before.
"In 50-plus mph wind, they shot their season low round on a tough course in tough conditions," Mathias said. "When they blew the field away, I think they understood at that point that they weren't bad."
The Bulldogs will lose three players to graduation, but three are returning with the state title experience and the philosophy that got them there.
"What the seniors did and the mentality they laid for those girls will be a valuable thing for us next year," he said.