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Prep golf preview

After a young Whitefish girls' golf team wrapped up the 1999 state title, coaches didn't need to hesitate long before labeling the seven-time defending champions as favorites to do it all over in 12 months.

Not only were the Bulldogs, owners of the nation's longest active streak of consecutive state golf titles, set to return four of their top five golfers, but they were going to get the chance to extend that streak in their own backyard. The Class A state tournament will be played at Whitefish Lake Golf Club May 15-17.

"The state tournament happens to be in Whitefish this year," beamed Bulldog coach Terry Nelson.

Schools in the Missoula area will also have the same home-course advantage. The Class AA state tournament will be hosted at Larchmont Golf Course May 18-19, helping the Garden City's trio of participants gain an early edge. And Missoula Loyola and Frenchtown will face the always stiff competition from the east at Frenchtown's King Ranch Golf Course May 16-17.

Here's a look at the region's prospects in each class:

In Missoula, Sentinel stole all of the thunder last season when its senior-laden boys' team knocked off Great Falls Russell in a playoff to win its first AA title since 1988. This year, Big Sky hopes to steal some of that magic.

The Eagles, who didn't break the top 10 at the state meet a year ago, return four of their top five golfers. Coach Wes Appelt said seniors Marcus Williams, Cody Bradford and Jesse Jochinsen are looking to help defy recent results and make a memorable run.

"Based on our seniors and our experience, we've got a legitimate shot," Appelt said. "We haven't been picked to finish high at any one time, but this group of kids has been dedicated for quite a few years and are ready to play some good golf."

Sentinel returns just one golfer from its championship team, sophomore Adam Hober, so defending the title is probably too much to ask. However, coach George Martin said 34 players came out, so he has some talent to choose from.

"Some of them are pretty good," he said. "It's a young team. I'm hoping they come along quick."

Missoula Hellgate is also an inexperienced club, but Jason Burnett should fare well individually. The senior broke into the top 10 a year ago and will undoubtedly guide the young Knights.

"We're shooting for him to be a very promising golfer this year," Hellgate coach Rob Henthorn said of Burnett.

Add Kalispell to the list of youthful western Montana boys' teams. Coach Jim Hann returns two from his fifth-place club, including Justin Smith, who finished in the top 15 a year ago. But with no seniors and just one junior, Hann said even he can't predict what his team will do.

"Our boys are as young a team as we've had," he said. "It really is a question mark of how good we'll be."

None of Missoula's girls' teams are expected to challenge for a trophy, but Sentinel's Sarah Paulson and Hellgate's Corey Shott should vie for an all-state spot, given to the top 10 individuals.

The Spartans return two from their team that placed sixth. Paulson is the clear leader, but Martin expects solid play from Darci Snowden and Eva Davis as well.

Hellgate seniors Shott, Melissa Rasmussen and Margaret McNab are three of 10 players for Henthorn, the most in three years for the Knights. But beyond them, the team is inexperienced.

Big Sky also has a trio of returning players from its state team but will balance them with two newcomers who are playing the sport for the first time. Appelt said junior Amanda Woolley could place high at state, and said the rest of the team will continue to cut its scores throughout the year.

The Kalispell girls bring back four of their top five after placing fifth last season. Led by junior Sara Ogle and senior Hanna Thies, Hann is expecting the Bravettes to challenge for a trophy and possibly even the title.

"Hanna and Sara are going to be the players that will carry us, but I really think we're a top three anyway," he said. "We're the type of team that if we get in the hunt, we might have a shot at a state championship."

In Class A, Whitefish has the opportunity to sweep both the boys' and girls' titles. The girls have a virtual lock on the prize behind the duo of senior Lisa Winslow and junior Kelsey Jensen, a fourth-place finisher last year. Katie VonLindern and Melissa Hearn will also be key if the Bulldogs continue their stranglehold on the state title. Nelson isn't so quick to give his team the nod.

"Miles City is real good. They finished third last year and have most of their girls back," he said. "It'll be competitive, but I think we'll be better than we were last year" when his team won by eight strokes over Billings Central.

Nelson also returns the bulk of his boys' team, which placed eighth last year. Four of the five are back, with Robert Sullivan expected to be the No. 1 player.

"I think the favorite is probably Havre, maybe Dillon, but it's kind of anybody's tournament," Nelson said. "Our kids were pretty young last year and we didn't have a real good state tournament. I think we should be all over it this year. I think we should have as good a shot at it as anybody."

The Polson boys were a distant second in 1999 after an outstanding Laurel team ran away with the title. The Pirates are looking to repeat their success, and have the talent to do so. Junior Jeff Dooley and sophomore Andy Samsel are back and will be surrounded by a talented group of underclassmen.

Erin Wallace will lead a very young Pirate girls' team featuring a pair of sophomores and a pair of freshmen. That youth has Owen looking to mold his team for years to come.

Libby coach Dann Rohrer is looking for sophomore Josh Schad and senior Nick Pfeifer to have good years for the Loggers. However, the rest of his team is primarily freshmen and sophomores and will need time to improve.

The Libby girls placed 10th last year and return three from that team in Katie Pfeifer, Brooke Kambel and Kelly Cassidy. Rohrer is expecting a couple of sophomores to round out the varsity team and help the Loggers move up in the standings.

"We just need those three to play well and one other one," he said. "I think we'll be competitive, I really do. They've been to state twice so they're kind of used to winning."

Other boys' teams in the Class A race to keep tabs on are Hamilton and Bigfork. Each have quality No. 1 golfers in Kody McCowen and James Dayton, respectively, with enough support behind them to make a splash in the postseason.

Lacy Shlegel and Moe Baker from Columbia Falls could also place high in the girls' contest.

No team in the region placed higher than 10th at the Class B-C state tournament in 1999, and only two - one each for both the boys and girls - earned all-state honors by placing in the top 10. Although teams from the east are still the decided favorites to win it all, western Montana should make a better showing this year.

Frenchtown, which placed 13th in the boys' race, returns everyone. Junior Nathan Nowlen is the Broncs' best hope for a top finish, but good things could also happen for Frenchtown in the team standings.

"We have a chance to be real competitive," Frenchtown coach Dan Moe said.

It will be a challenging season for the Frenchtown girls, who graduated everybody from its 12th-place club.

"We have seven girls at practice, none of whom are tournament ready," Moe said. "We're hoping that sometime later in April we'll be able to get them in a tournament."

The top four golfers from Missoula Loyola are back, making it a promising season for the Rams. They will be led by junior Chris Galiher, but they should also get solid scores from the supporting cast.

"I think we've worked ourselves back up," Loyola coach Mike Trudnowski said. "I see ourselves in the top 10."

Becky Guest will lead a young Loyola's girls' team. The junior is could finish in the top 20.

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