Honorary banners watch over the gymnasium at Loyola Sacred Heart, signifying state championships across the athletic spectrum. As for those representing each of the other sports, the celebrations of success in boys’ and girls’ golf list only the years that the teams made their title trips.

There’s no mention of individual medalists – of which there are plenty. Two-time defending champs Tom Swanson and Maggie Crippen won’t find their names emblazoned there, nor will Loyola’s legion of previous individual champions.

Because even for the two most decorated golfers in the history of the small private school, a recent Class B golf powerhouse, one name matters more than their own on those banners.

Loyola Sacred Heart.

“Taking a team to state is always better than going as an individual,” said Swanson, a senior Ram. “And when you’re contending for state, it gives you that extra level of excitement. When you’ve got a team there, you’ve got other people to root for, too.”

Swanson and fellow senior Crippen don’t need banners to boost recognition anymore. The duo is well known among links-goers in the state. Each sits in a remarkable spot, attempting to enter Montana high school athletic lore next month by winning a third straight individual state championship.

Should the low scores on the final day belong to them, talk of Loyola’s all-time greats will end. Instead, they’ll earn a little more elbow room in the conversation for Montana’s greatest prep golfers ever.

* * * * *

Tom Swanson spent most of his adolescence in Missoula, having moved to Big Sky country from New Jersey with his family at age 9. Soon thereafter, golf became the family babysitter.

“My parents would drop me off at the golf course before work, pick me up afterwards,” he said. “I would play a lot.”

By his freshman year at Loyola, Swanson was state-title ready. Even before teeing off with the Rams in the spring of 2010, his new teammates took notice.

Defending champion and then-Loyola senior Carter Bermingham, who’d helped the Rams to their first boys’ golf team championship the year before, had his eye on the young golfer from Day 1.

“I’d asked him how tough he thought it was going to be to repeat,” Loyola coach Dave Klein remembered saying,” and he said, ‘I don’t know, there’s a really good golfer this year. … Tom, from our team.’

“That’s how I was introduced to Tom Swanson.”

Likewise, Maggie Crippen grew up around golf – though perhaps not quite as literally as Swanson. Golf clubs are a right of passage for the Crippens. She joined her senior sister, Kelsie, at Loyola in 2009, contributing as a freshman the very next spring.

Kelsie won an individual championship in 2008, and two years later would finish second with Maggie just a handful of strokes behind in fifth place.

That same year, Swanson beat out Bermingham at the state meet to take second overall. He finished one stroke off the lead, a single shot behind teammate Daniel Cloninger.

The team totals weren’t nearly as close. Loyola had 45 strokes of cushion in the top spot.

What followed were two more runs with the Loyola boys into the state tournament and two first-place finishes for Swanson. Just as importantly, the Rams added the years 2011, 2012 to the growing list of banner batter. They’ve now won four straight while the girls have finished no lower than third dating back to 2008.

In ’11, both the girls and boys made their marks as bests in the state. That was also the first of Crippen’s back-to-back individual golds.

* * * * *

Crippen is the lone senior on a squad that hasn’t even any juniors. Swanson is one of a trio of senior boys. Still, both are viewed as de facto team leaders, roles the golfers have embraced.

“Last year I went in being more confident and knowing I could win it,” she said of her repeat bid. “This year, I pretty much expect to win state again, not to be cocky or anything.”

Because Crippen has earned the right to those expectations, as has Swanson. Managing them is the key. Luckily, the Loyola golfers have each other as they chase one last title in Missoula.

“We kind of talk about golf and I kind of look up to him for advice for golf,” Crippen said. “Because he’s better than me. So I’ll say, ‘What should I do here?’ or I’ll talk to him if I need help with my swing. It’s just nice to have somebody that understands me and my situation.”

Each of Loyola’s Big Two have played their ways onto college rosters already – Swanson at University of Michigan, Crippen with North Dakota State University. Those decisions were made long before their senior seasons with Swanson inking last summer and Crippen doing the same in the fall.

Having those decisions out of the way felt relieving, both agreed. The recruitment process can be a bit of a distraction.

“Having coaches watching you, the added pressure of wanting to do really well certainly doesn’t help anything,” Swanson said. “I don’t really get too nervous anyway but it was definitely a little added pressure, like all of a sudden college depends on this shot.”

Instead, the Loyola pair has pursued their next championships without distraction. Swanson’s ever-growing height – he’s now 6 foot, 3 inches – has allowed him to hit the long ball with greater force and Crippen’s drive has become more consistent as well. She’s grown into a fairway ace, setting herself up for manageable birdies and pars, she said.

And as the No. 1s have improved, so has the rest of the Loyola links crew. Another year older and wiser, Coach Klein said the ambitions were set high in the early season. It wasn’t long before Loyola was surpassing the initial goals – individual marks, team lows below 300 strokes – and new aims were taken.

“Tom and Maggie both have that unique capacity that they’re team players, and with that caliber of golfer, you don’t see that as often as I’d like to see it with a lot of the players,” the coach said. “… Because they figured out that’s going to help their game as well, being part of that team process. The other three or four players are counting and relying on them to play their best.”

And the best may be yet to come, Klein hopes.

“They’re two real special kids; I’d obviously love to have them forever,” he said. “My loss is going to be those universities’ gains and don’t be surprised if you read about them and hear about them in the years to come. Not only just the next four, but beyond.

They’re that good. They’re that good.”

Reporter AJ Mazzolini can be reached at (406) 781-3919 or at anthony.mazzolini@missoulian.com.

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