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Benefield: Cardinal Newman golf thinking big for postseason

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People play golf their entire lives without ever knowing the feeling that Cardinal Newman freshman Gabby Sinatra has enjoyed three times this season.

The Cardinals’ No. 2 player has hit an ace not once, not twice, but three times this season in Newman’s march toward their North Bay League-Redwood Division title.

“You just hit it and you don’t really expect it to go in,” Sinatra said. “You just watch it land and then bounce and all of a sudden it’s in the hole and you are like, ‘Oh that just went in the hole.’ ”

Sinatra said the feat is made more fun because of the reaction it gets from others, not necessarily the hole-in-one-itself.

“It’s really special because I’ve played with people and they’ve seen me get holes-in-one and it’s just a really fun experience,” she said. Notice she had to use the plural: “holes.” Jeez.

And if that level of skill wasn’t enough, Sinatra, whose average this season is 39 for the nine holes that girls play in league, is only the team’s second best player. The best? That title belongs to the league MVP, junior Abby Leighton, a golfer with a sterling resume, including last year’s Div. 2 crown.

Cardinal Newman coach T.J. McMahon has one of the more loaded — and youthful — rosters among North Coast Section Division 2 schools playing at Beau Pre Golf Club in McKinleyville on Monday for the section team title and the right for 18 golfers to move on as individuals to the Div. 1 tournament Oct. 28 at Foxtail Golf Club in Rohnert Park.

The five Cardinals — three freshmen, one sophomore and a junior — are among a total of 20 golfers from the North Bay League and the Vine Valley Athletic League competing to move on. Ukiah, winners of the NBL-Oak Division title, as well as Napa High in the VVAL, both Div. 1 programs, automatically earn the right to send a team of six players apiece to that tournament.

To get their first girls’ golf NCS banner, the Cardinals will have to rely on youth. Leighton, coming off a summer in which she won the 70th annual California Junior Girls’ State Championship, is just a junior. She has dropped her nine-hole average from 39 last season to 36 this year, but as the top player in the area, she has some unfinished business, namely to make it out of the Div. 1 tournament and into the NorCal tournament. She fell short last season.

Leighton spent much of last week resting after tweaking her shoulder, according to McMahon. But lucky for him, he’s got a youthful army right behind his leader — including Sinatra.

“She’s all business,” he said of his No. 2 player. “She is very methodical. She just repeats her swing so well.”

And in McKinleyville, where the course has a lot of similarities with Bennett Valley Golf Course, the course Sinatra learned to play on, she should thrive, McMahon said.

“I think it’s going to play pretty straightforward to her,” he said.

Fellow freshman Lillie Dayton plays third and, according to McMahon, has clubhead speed second only to Leighton.

“She has great swing speed,” he said.

But like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. One bad shot can quickly lead to a few strokes that could have been avoided, he said.

“She is usually pretty good off the tee,” McMahon said. “Every part of her game needs to be more consistent.”

When that happens? Watch out, he said.

“Once she figures out how to minimize those mistakes, her scores will drop a lot,” he said.

At four right behind Dayton is Leighton’s sister, Tori, a sophomore who averaged 46 on the season to Dayton’s 45.

Leighton is a softball player above all else, McMahon said. But she’s “super competitive,” so the infusion of uber-talented freshmen has pushed Leighton’s game “tremendously.” After all, she was the team’s No. 2 last season.

“She is long and consistent off the tee,” he said. “If you can start any hole down the middle of the fairway, it just makes the rest of the hole so much easier.”

At five is Samantha Simpkins, a player McMahon describes as both a beginner to competitive golf and a natural.

“Her swing is violent and she gets after it. You can’t teach that,” he said.

The focus for Simpson, McMahon said, is to eliminate some hitches in her swing.

“She has a lot of moving parts,” he said. But she has the ability to post 9-hole scores in the 40s, which would go a long way in helping the Cardinals on Monday.

“The game is there,” he said.

With this infusion of youthful talent, it could be argued that Cardinal Newman could sneak up on perennial quality programs like Tamalpais High or Marin Catholic or host McKinleyville, but boasting a roster that includes the reigning junior champion of girls’ golf in California makes it a little hard to be stealthy.

Still, the Newman roster will be a big unknown to a lot of their competitors. But so, too, will the rosters of their competitors. “You just don’t know,” McMahon said.

But that simplifies the game plan and makes the adage of playing one’s own game and not worrying about anyone else that much more applicable.

And McMahon likes his team’s chances. He definitely likes his roster’s shot at grabbing a number of those 18 slots that will advance as individuals to the Div. 1 tournament.

“I’m hoping for that,” Dayton said. “If my scores are good, my coach said there is a chance for some of us to make it individually. I’m hoping for that.”

When asked what her goals for Monday are, Sinatra paused.

“I’m a freshman so this is all new to me,” she said.

But pushed a little, her goals for herself and her teammates emerges.

Does she want to advance to the Div. 1 tournament?

“Yes. Definitely,” she said.

How many Cardinals does she think could move on?

“If we play really well, all of us,” she said.

It’s a notion that although largely unspoken, remains in the forefront for the team, she said.

“We don’t really talk about it but it’s kind of like in the air,” she said. “We know we can get it but we don’t really talk about it.”

But after Monday, the secret might very well be out.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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