PHOENIX – Some of Arizona’s elite girls golf programs could provide a sneak peek at the upcoming Division I and II state tournaments beginning Tuesday at the State Preview, an invitational tournament that unfolds at Aguila Golf Course.
Topping the list of entries are Division 1 powers Xavier Prep, who had an eight-game state championship streak snapped in 2019, and the Pinnacle Pioneers, the team that ended that Xavier run. The Highland Hawks, who are another Division I contender, and Division II powers Ironwood Ridge and Cactus Shadows are also in the field.
When Pinnacle shocked Xavier at last year’s state tournament, it was only the fourth loss the Gators had experienced since 1979. The 2020 Xavier team is strong again, despite a roster that features eight freshmen, Gators coach Sister Lynn Winsor said, and the State Preview promises to provide much-needed experience for Winsor’s young lineup.
Winsor called the State Preview a “great opportunity” to see how some of the teams Xavier will face at the state tournament stack up.
“For us, I know Pinnacle is going to be there,” she said. “I’m not sure if Hamilton is going to be there. And then in Division II, Cactus Shadows usually shows up to that invitational, too. And it’s just a great opportunity, not only to have a day of practice, but also again, to get to know the teams.”
Pinnacle coach Charlie Wilde said his reigning state champs are treating the State Preview like it’s a good practice round. The Pioneers beat Xavier by three strokes in early September at the Antigua National High School Invitational at Whirlwind Golf Club.
“If we don’t beat (Xavier) there, I don’t think it’s the end of the world,” Wilde said. “We would like to sit there, send a message and beat them there, too. But we’re just taking that as practice to get ready for the next week (at state) because that’s when it really counts.”
Winsor believes that getting an idea this week about how Xavier’s competitors might play at the state tournament is important for her girls if they hope to start a new state-title streak.
Although the state’s elite golfers compete against each other in junior golf events, high school golf is more of a team sport than an individual competition. It’s a different atmosphere, and the State Preview offers Xavier and other contenders a taste of it.
Winsor’s top five includes two freshmen, one sophomore, a junior, and senior Lauren Garcia, who missed last year’s state tournament because of illness. Junior Ivy Song and sophomore Annie Dawson are the only returning players from Xavier’s 2019 state tournament lineup.
Song, who played on Xavier’s last state title team as a freshman and was in the lineup when the streak ended last season, is not concerned about putting pressure on Pinnacle. She is focused more on how the Gators perform.
“We’re not about putting pressure on other teams,” Song said. “We definitely want to improve, especially this year with eight new freshmen, we want to help them grow… We did really well in the last invitational (at Whirlwind). (Pinnacle was) missing one of their players but we can still improve, still do better, and we’re practicing at (Aguila).”
Winsor said her inexperienced lineup will make things “interesting” this week and in the upcoming state tournament.
“Don’t get me wrong, every team in the world loves to win, but we know that that Pinnacle has an outstanding team,” she said. “They did a great job last year, and they played so beautifully. Then they also won the Antigua Invitational, which was held about a month ago. They’re an outstanding team, so we know we have some work to do. But in golf, every day is a different day.”
There is youth on Xavier’s roster even beyond Winsor’s top five. Garcia, who has signed to play at Sonoma State, is one of only two seniors on the team. The other is reserve Mary Beth Doss, who will play at Colorado Christian next year.
That’s a sharp contrast to last season, when Winsor had five seniors.
“All of us would be really thrilled to win state again because it’s such an honor, but we know the competition’s really good out there,” Winsor said. “Pinnacle’s really good, and Highland is really good. So there are some really good teams going into this.”
A victory at the State Preview would give the Gators valuable momentum.
“Oh, of course anytime you win a tournament and your girls play well, that builds your confidence for the next,” Winsor said. “I don’t think our girls feel pressure. I think they know that they’ve got a lot of talent and they’re anxious to get to the state tournament. I think there’s pressure when you’re the team that’s been the champion, and they know that everybody’s chasing. This year, we’d love to move up. But we know the competition’s really tough. They’ve got a good coach, and they’ve got great players at Pinnacle.”
And, Wilde added, the Pioneers have put in the work to keep their championship.
“Our girls work their tails off,” Wilde said. “They always put the time and the effort in. I like our chances just because any team that works hard probably deserves the chance to be able to win a tournament like that. They’re working so hard, and they have a lot of confidence going into (state) with the success that they’ve had in the past. We’d like to think that we have a good shot at winning that.”
However, he knows that taking down the powerhouse Gators two years in a row will not come easily and said there are other potential challengers in the field this week, too.
“Beating Xavier is going to be tough,” Wilde said. “Ironwood Ridge, who won it last year in Division II, and Cactus Shadows are both really talented groups, too. I think winning that (State Preview) would be a huge statement to everybody, to say that we are the team to beat.”
While Xavier and Pinnacle expect to be in the battle for the top spot this week, Highland coach Jennifer Castillo downplayed her team’s chances of upsetting the Gators and Pioneers.
“We are in a very different place than Xavier and Pinnacle right now,” Castillo said. “We are a very young team this year. We have no seniors, four of our five are juniors. And we have a freshman that is competing for us. This is really, for us, more of a (preparation year) for next year when most of our girls are seniors. We’re competing with ourselves more than we are necessarily those top two or three teams.
“I don’t want to discount my girls. Anything can happen on any day. But when you talk about those teams, you talk about teams that are scoring below par as a team on a regular basis. And we are nowhere near doing that yet. It could happen. But it’s just as likely that it couldn’t happen.”