By Kyle LoJacono
The Steinbrenner boys and girls golf teams each reached regionals last year, but a return to the playoffs will only be possible if a new cast of characters fills major voids.
Steinbrenner girls golf
The Warriors were in a similar position 12 months ago.
The 2011 squad had to find a replacement for Alex Milan, a four-time individual district champion, Florida State University signee and 2010 The Laker/Lutz News Girls Golfer of the Year.
Steinbrenner went 10-0 in the regular season and returned to the playoffs for the third time in as many years by finishing as the Class 2A-District 10 runner-up in 2011.
This year, the Warriors lose a pair of seniors, Sara Bair and Michelle Stein, but return the rest of the roster while adding depth.
“I think this team might be better than that team last year,” said Mark Mann, the only coach in program history. “Last year, we went 10-0 and advanced in districts and missed going to states by just a couple strokes. I’ve only got seven girls, but they’re all capable of contributing out here.”
Sophomores Claire Becker and Kelsy Holbert said having success last year as freshmen gives them confidence entering this year. Holbert called it an “honor” to be part of a 10-0 team, while Becker described last season as “the best two months” of her life.
“The team was so close,” said Becker, who has been playing since age 8. “It was like a big family. It was awesome to be able to contribute, but being part of such a close team and to go 10-0 was a great experience.”
Becker said playing with and learning from last year’s seniors helped her progression.
“I loved playing with them,” Becker said. “They were like older sisters, because they’ve been playing for so long, and I got to watch them and learn high school golf. I learned it was OK to hit a bad shot because there’s another one right in front of you. You don’t have to freak out. You can just keep going.”
The Warriors are very young, with only one senior. The majority are sophomores.
“It’s actually kind of cool because we have this group of younger players who have chemistry together,” Becker said. “Me, Brooke (Deal), Hannah (Crosby) and Kelsy have been playing together all winter. We can all grow up playing high school golf together.”
To expand her skills, Becker practiced twice a day during the summer with the focus of improving her short game. Holbert’s focus has been to improve her putting to help her scores while reducing her push-up total.
“Putting, putting, putting,” Holbert said. “No more 3-putts; no more push-ups. … Coach Mann has us do 10 push-ups for every missed putt. I did easily over 200 last year.”
Steinbrenner has jumped out to a 5-0 record, including a victory against district rival Plant City to snap the Raiders’ 26-match win streak on Sept. 10.
Mann has seen the players’ effort result in improved skills this season.
“They all have great work ethic and they know the game,” Mann said. “A lot of them have been playing in junior tournaments together. They’re ultra competitive, and they’re great girls. … The younger girls worked hard since the end of the season to get prepared to set their sights on one goal, which is the state finals.”
And Warriors aren’t sandbagging when talking about earning the program’s second appearance at states.
“No doubt in my mind,” Holbert said. “We’re going to states.”
Steinbrenner boys golf
Just like the girls program, the Warriors boys have quickly established a tradition of success since the school opened in 2009.
Steinbrenner (1-3) has made the postseason all three years, something coach JR Allen is extremely proud of.
“That’s the tradition we’ve set,” said Allen, the only coach in program history. “We don’t want to take a step down. That’s what I’ve been telling Nick (Kalolo) and Zach (Ishee) and Dillon (Garcia), that they’ve got a lot on their shoulders this year to try and continue that tradition. They’ve stepped up to it and gotten better. Zach and Dillon have got three to four strokes off their game and Nick is probably our top player right now.”
Kalolo, a junior, shot a team-best 77 at the Class 2A-District 10 meet to help the Warriors take third. The previous two years Steinbrenner was a 1A school, and Kalolo said making the playoffs again while stepping up in competition was a confidence booster.
“Knowing that we could move up and play with the other public schools in the area was big, especially for the guys who are back,” said Kalolo, who is in his third season on the squad.
The Warriors lose three of their top golfers to graduation: Patrick Reed, Tyler Pope and No. 1 player Trevor Joseph.
Allen said those three were the core of what allowed the program to be successful from the start.
“The way we opened up our first year I was spoiled,” Allen said. “I’d never even coached golf before. I’ve played the game my whole life, but I had to learn how to coach the game. I had a lot of talent just fall in my lap, and we’ve progressed from there.”
The Warriors also lose junior Kevin Merrell, who decided to forgo this season after committing to play baseball at the University of South Florida. An injury while golfing could have jeopardized his scholarship.
“It was a personal choice, and I accept that,” Allen said. “He was one of those guys who could shoot par on any night. We’re going to miss his clubs.”
Ishee, a junior entering his second year on the team, said those players will be missed, but added that the young talent mixed with Kalolo’s experience will help their quest to make their fourth regional appearance.
“Nick was up there at No. 1 or 2, and we didn’t lose him,” Ishee said. “We can kind of build on what we learned last year, and it’s nice having a guy like him back to be up at the top. … There’re a lot of underclassmen, so I want to be able to help them out. I think we can do what we did last year if we help them improve.”
Kalolo said he’s been working on his short game this summer.
“My distance has been really good at the different tournaments,” Kalolo said. “What gets me is my short game changes at the different courses. As long as I make that consistent, I think I can get better.”
Allen said it’s going to take everyone improving each week for the squad to return to the postseason.
“You never want to let down on your goals and expectations once you’ve set a bar,” Allen said. “I told those guys at the end of last year, here’s the potential they have this year if they work all summer. It was a challenge to work on their game and play different courses. My top three guys did that.”
Steinbrenner girls golf roster
Claire Becker, So.
Hannah Crosby, So.
Brooke Deal, So.
Marlena Gumpher, Sr.
Kelsy Holbert, So.
Kaitlin Mascaro, Fr.
Kayla Poff, So.
Steinbrenner boys golf roster
Wyatt Baggett, Sr.
Dillon Garcia, Jr.
Zach Ishee, Jr.
Nik Kalolo, Sr.
Andrew McNutt, Jr.
Austin Piro, So.
Blake Willoughby, Jr.