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In a season of firsts, some things remain the same.

When the North Bay League was re-aligned to create two divisions, the aim was greater parity. Defending NBL girls’ golf champ Maria Carrillo was slotted into the more robust NBL-Oak Division with Santa Rosa, Rancho Cotate, Ukiah and Analy.

Last season, en route to their second straight league pennant, the Pumas defeated their opponents by an average of 58 strokes. This season? The differential is near 68 strokes every time out. Over nine holes.

And what might be more impressive is that they improved their differential against every opponent barring one, Analy, in the second half of the season. And they beat Analy by 84 strokes.

“My three best (players) shot every respectable score for high school golf,” first-year coach Chris Nelle said.

Yet despite the Pumas’ dominance, they will not go as a team to represent the NBL-Oak at the North Coast Section tournament starting Monday. It turns out that academic conflicts — including one player who is signed up for a job shadow and another who has a Santa Rosa Junior College class on the day of the competition — will sideline some of the Pumas. With only six players to start with, those absences take the team out of the mix.

So the Pumas will send just two to the postseason: senior Nicole Kearns and junior Tricia Cayetano.

“(They) are going to go based on their individual merits,” Nelle said.

And merit they have.

Kearns proved to be the best golfer in the NBL-Oak and finished her league career with a win at the NBL-Oak tournament at Bennett Valley on Monday, shooting an 82.

Cayetano and sophomore Shea Lee both shot 91s, according to Nelle.

“She’s just an incredibly wonderful talent, a natural swinger,” Nelle said of Kearns.

She’s been playing “since I could hold a club,” she said.

“My dad was the one who started golfing first and he introduced my mom to it,” she said. “They hoped I would take up the game, too.”

Kearns has thrived in the NBL. Her only real competition is Cardinal Newman sophomore Abby Leighton, but thanks to the new league configuration, Leighton and the Cardinals compete in the Redwood Division.

When the two went head-to-head in a preseason matchup at Fountaingrove, Leighton shot a 37 and Kearns shot a 38.

But Leighton went one better — make that five better — last week when she shot a 4-under par 32 on that very rigorous course.

It’s a competition that could have been fun, but alas, the divisions kept these two talents apart — a least in league play.

“If they played four matches, it wouldn’t surprise me if Nicole won two and Abby won two,” Nelle said.

Which is one of the reasons he’s looking forward to the postseason, which begins next week.

“It will be fun to see how the two of them do on a foreign golf course,” he said.

But Kearns puts forth a decidedly easygoing vibe for an athlete at the upper echelon of her sport locally.

Looking forward to NCS? I ask.

“I have been to NCS before,” she said. “The girls there are definitely much more intense in the game. Part of what I enjoy about the game is enjoying myself and I play the game better when I’m enjoying myself.”

So when the Pumas marched through league play this year, Kearns said she relished the social side of golf.

“Our reputation is kind of known, so there is not much pressure in competition,” she said. “A lot of the number ones and number twos, we have known each other, so a lot of the time you see us laughing out there and catching up. It’s not as competitive and more just playing with friends. Which is the way I like it.”

So when Leighton came out this season on fire, was Kearns bothered by it in this, her senior year? Not a bit, she said.

“I know she has definitely surpassed me,” she said. “But it’s important to be humble and accept that and have fun. She’s super awesome.”

As easygoing as Kearns seems, she is a little disappointed that the Pumas won’t move into the postseason as a team. But she gets it.

“The romantic side of me really would want us all to go, but logically, and practically, it makes sense,” she said.

So, of the vaunted Pumas squad, it will be just Kearns and Cayetano — whose game Nelle described as “very solid” — who head to Peacock Gap Golf Club in San Rafael.

The NBL-Redwood co-champions — Leighton’s Cardinal Newman and Healdsburg — got automatic team berths and will send six players apiece.

Four players from both NBL divisions — in addition to Kearns and Cayetano — were selected to move on to the NCS tournament as individuals: Montgomery junior Ciarah Michalik, Rancho Cotate freshman Isay Liwanag, Rancho senior Melissa Pamatmat and Windsor freshman Roisin Averill.

The NCS individual qualifier competition is Monday and the NCS championship is Oct. 29. The Northern California championships are Nov. 5 and the CIF state championship is Nov. 13.

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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