Benefield: Seeking girls golf supremacy in new-look NBL

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At the proverbial turn in the fall girls golf season, Healdsburg has established itself as the team to beat in the North Bay League-Redwood division.

And Cardinal Newman has the player to beat: Sophomore Abby Leighton.

“Abby is for sure the lowest average in the Redwood division, by far and away,” Healdsburg coach Jane Wann said. “She has such a beautiful game and a wonderful stroke. It’s so much fun to see her, just to watch her hit.”

Leighton, the Cardinals’ No. 1 for the second season in a row, impressed Montgomery coach Tom Fitchie through the first half of the season as well.

“She’s the real deal,” he said. “Just to watch her play so smooth, so easy. She’s probably the cream of the crop.”

Leighton is backed by the Cardinals’ No. 2, her sister, freshman Tori Leighton.

But even with the one-two punch of the Leightons, the Cardinals could not get by the Healdsburg Hounds when they met at the Healdsburg Golf Club at Tayman Park Wednesday, where they fell 260-279.

“It’s a tough course,” Cardinals coach T.J. McMahon said. “It’s one of those courses, if we probably played a few more times, we would have been closer. You definitely have to play some holes safe and smart.”

But that is the thing with prep golf — for beginning players who may not get a ton of rounds in, the home course can be a huge boon for host teams. To that end, Wann is readying her crew for a second half of the season that will be pretty road heavy.

“We were pretty successful that first half and we also had three matches at home that really made a difference for us,” she said. “Going into this part of it, we only have two matches here.”

Yes, but she has seniors Tiffany Vanvranken as her No. 1 and Piper Jones at No. 2. Not a bad combination.

“They are our go-to players,” she said. “They are really the leaders of the team. The next three players are all shooting in the midrange.”

But the middle of the lineup is key to her team’s success, she said.

“In our league here in the North Bay, whether it’s North Bay-Oak or Redwood, you have to have depth,” she said.

Healdsburg has just six golfers on the roster, but they are solid and don’t post scores that swing wildly from one extreme to the other.

It makes them tough to knock off.

The Hounds beat Windsor 275-321, El Molino 265-349, Montgomery 287-301 and Cardinal Newman 260-279 in the first half of the season.

They travel to Windsor Tuesday.

“We have to play well every match in order to win,” Wann said. “We can’t drop anything. So we will still have to be on our game.”

In this first year of the new league configuration, Wann said she will miss some of her old foes. And she would have liked to have seen how the Hounds stacked up against competition in the North Bay League-Oak.

“I wish we had thought about doing some inter-conference matches,” she said. “We won’t play Santa Rosa and won’t play Carrillo and I would see how we hold up against them, or how they would hold up coming to Tayman.”

Another player to watch is Montgomery’s returning No. 1, Ciarah Michalik. The junior is also a standout on the Vikings’ basketball team.

“She’s tough,” Fitchie said. “She shot a 41 the first time she played at Northwood.”

Fitchie has revived the girls golf program from having just one player a couple of years ago to having 13 on his unofficial roster this season.

But some of those players are brand new to the game, so their goals are different from, say, his Nos. 1 and 2.

But that is a balance that all coaches at this level say they face.

Not many have the luxury of getting an athlete who has been playing the game from an early age or even one who puts a ton of time in over the summer to get better.

So when that happens? Bonus.

Newman’s No. 4 Olivia Almy has been playing in the No. 3 position while a teammate tries to come back from injury.

“She is one of the girls who practiced this summer and her game has really improved,” her coach, McMahon, said.

Cardinal Newman bested third-place Montgomery by nine strokes in their first league contest at Montgomery’s home course at Bennett Valley. They face each other again Tuesday, this time at Newman’s home course at Fountaingrove.

“Montgomery is very competitive with us,” McMahon said of the Vikings.

And after Newman, Montgomery faces a rising Windsor team. The Vikings downed the Jags in their first match by a mere two strokes. That rematch is Thursday at Bennett Valley.

And if McMahon and the Cardinals’ experience with Windsor is any indicator, the Vikings should prep themselves for an improving Jaguars team. Newman topped the Jags by 30 the first time they met Sept. 14 at Fountaingrove, but that deficit was cut to 14 when they played at Windsor Thursday.

Wann’s team faces probably its toughest league competition in the final two matches of the regular season — a stroke of scheduling serendipity that adds a little excitement.

“We have our biggest matches on the last two days,” she said. “It’s kind of the way you want it to end.”

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

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