The 2018 Heart River girls golf team will forever live in the hearts of the Belfield and South Heart communities.
Last season, the Cougars earned the areas first high school state championship in any sport after the squad shot a two-day, tournament-low score of 727.
Following a year of celebration, Heart River is back on the links in hopes of an encore performance for the 2019 season. One thing is for sure though, the defending state champs know that with last year's accomplishment, they are going to get everyone's best shot.
"I think it adds a little bit more pressure cause now we're going to feel like we've got a target on our backs," Heart River head coach Kirby Robb said. "People are out to beat us where we've always been out to beat them. ... But I'm excited for these girls. It's the first time we are defending state champs. and we are looking forward to a good year."
Robb also noted that his players may try too hard to maintain their level of elite play, which may potentially lead to some humbling off days. Additionally, Bayli Krance and Kenadee Kudrna, two members of last year's title team, graduated, leaving newcomers eighth grader Mackenzee Schneider and seventh grader Molly Robb as young replacements. The head coach doesn't mind that, though, as the players will get a chance to grow against strong competition.
"I always tell them, 'I'm going to throw you to the wolves as a seventh grader, and by the time you are a freshman, you become the wolf,'" Robb said.
Freshmen Grace Nantt and Madie Jarrett return to the fold and will serve as the team's No. 3 and No. 4 golfers on the lineup behind the dynamic duo of sophomore Campbell Clarys and Katie Keator. At state Clarys captured eighth while Keator was fifth.
"It's my senior year and I have my swing dialed down. It's nice to be able to come out and play and try to perfect my game," Keator said. "At the beginning of last year, my short game was not very good. Kirby helped me and at the end of last season and in the summer, my short game has improved a lot."
Last season was Keator's third straight top-10 state finish and second consecutive top-five finish after taking third in 2017. She's expected to compete at state once again this year with her aim at another spot in the top five.
"There's a lot of good golfers and a lot of good girls, and they know what they are doing," said Keator, who won the Region 5 medalist award in 2018. "I know it's not going to be easy and I'm not going to have it handed to me, so I'm going to have to work hard, put in the effort and the time."
One of the girls expected to give Keator a stiff challenge is Brooke Peterson. The Bowman County senior was the highest placing golfer from Region 5 at state last year, as she earned a tie for third with a two-day score of 165.
"She's really trying to develop consistency with her short game. Chipping might have cost her a couple of strokes at state and she knew that," Bulldogs head coach Todd Frie said. "You can never get enough putts in. She knows that, too. So, she has her own putting mat that she works on ... She's got a good work ethic and definitely wants to compete at top again this year."
Coming off a fifth-place finish at state, Bowman County enters the 2019 campaign with the entire lineup back from 2018.
Tied for 20th on the big stage a year ago, junior Elise Fischer returns, as does senior Emily Belland, sophomores Logan Blankenbaker, Harley Lardy and eighth grader Bailey Peterson, who Frie says could be a potential surprise with her improvement. With the pieces in place, the Bulldogs could be one of the programs battling for the state crown.
"I think that's a realistic expectation for us," Frie said. "Being one of the top-six teams the last two years, it is a comforting feeling knowing that. It also might put more pressure on our girls' shoulders because they know they have these expectations coming in. But having the defending state champion in our region is good for us, we get to see that competition nearly every meet that we go to. ... I think it's going to be a good measuring stick to see where we are statewide."
Hazen and Beach are two other teams to watch for in a region that has long belonged to Heart River, with the Cougars winning the last four Region 5 titles.
"Last year, I had the luxury of pulling from six scores," Robb said. "This year, it's probably going to be mainly four. ... But the experience of being there and winning is probably going to be the biggest advantage.
"We got to play the game, but we're solid."