MATTHEWS – Carmel Christian girls golf coach Bill Smith can notice a big difference when his team pulls up to play in tournaments this season.
Before last fall, the Cougars were an unknown, never having the three required golfers to form a team capable of competing for state championships.
Last year, though, Annalise Dale, Kelley Topiwala and Bethany Welch teamed together to not only form the first team in school history but also capture the NCISAA Division II championship.
Now, Smith said, people are beginning to take notice.
“When we go to tournaments now, people know about these girls now and know about their reputation so I think it is a little intimidating,” he said. “One of the better golfers that we’ve played in the past shot a (nine-hole) 44 recently because I think she was a little intimidated by us.”
Among Division II teams, there is a lot to be impressed by.
Not only did the Cougars ride their way to a 22-stroke lead over Cape Fear Academy at last season’s championship, all three of the returning players have been working on their game and getting better.
“A year makes a big difference in golf with distance and having more experience,” said Dale, who is currently ranked fifth in NCISAA Division II standings with a 39.2 nine-hole scoring average this season. “My short game has gotten a lot better and I have a new swing coach at Pinehurst. It’s not a new swing, but I’ve developed certain habits over the course of the past few years and he’s working with me on that. So for me, it’s been the coaching and my short game that’s helped.”
But Dale isn’t the only one who has made strides in their game since last season’s championship run.
“All three have worked so hard in the offseason to shave strokes off, and that’s amazing for the two seniors to drastically reduce their scoring averages at this point,” Smith said. “Annalise has gone maybe three or four strokes lower this year, which is amazing. Kelley has gone down two or three strokes, too, and so has Bethany. All three of them have worked so hard and are great examples to the younger girls.”
The Cougars have welcomed a pair of newcomers this season to go with Welch, who is hitting the ball longer off the tee and focusing on limiting her mistakes on the course. With that focus, she’s averaging 42.2 shots per nine holes and is seeded 10th in the state despite being a sophomore.
Freshman Kalista Pressley has a low round of 59 this season in three matches, and eighth-grader Ava Aderholt has shot 61 on two occasions.
The growth of the team is especially special for Topiwala, who began playing for the Cougars as a freshman.
Now she’s the unquestioned leader of the Cougars who is averaging a team-best 37.2 strokes per nine holes and is ranked second among NCISAA Division II golfers.
“I was the first girl on the golf team during my freshman year, and it’s been cool to get Bethany on the team and then get Annalise and see the team keep growing,” she said. “I hope it continues to grow. Maybe I can come back one day when the golf team is regularly winning state championships. It will be cool to say that I helped start that.”
First, Topiwala knows she can add another championship to the Cougars’ case this season.
Through Sept. 24, the Cougars are the top-seeded team in their division, but Wayne Country Day, Cape Fear Academy and the O’Neal School are all within a few strokes of Carmel Christian’s team scoring average.
But Smith thinks his players will have an advantage come state tournament time. Smith said he plans an extra practice round this year, but his team has the skill and the mindset to win it all again.
“They’re loose, they have fun, they smile all the time and they know what to do out there,” he said.
And winning it all would be the perfect sendoff to Dale and Topiwala, the program’s first-ever seniors.
“It’s pretty incredible that a team of three can win it, and I think we can do it again,” Dale said. “We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, so we need to keep working on improving our games and our swings. We have to make sure we have the right strategies this year because the state championship is in Pinehurst again. We’ve been there and we know what to do.”