BY COREY CUSICK THE TIMES-GEORGIAN
Entering the Class AAAAA portion of the GHSA Golf State Championships with the No. 3 qualifying score coming out of area, the Carrollton High School girls' golf team is no longer just happy to be on the big stage.
The Lady Trojans are ready to make a run at it and compete for the state crown when the 11-team field swings into action at Braelinn Golf Club in Peachtree City on Monday and Tuesday for the grand finale of the spring season.
"The past couple years of my high school career, there's always been a lead team going into state and they're pretty much set," noted Lady Trojan senior standout Taylor Gray. "This year it's more tight for that lead spot and we're all pretty close to each other. If we'll just play our game and get our mental game ready more than anything, I think we have a shot at it."
Gray led the Lady Trojans to the Area 4-AAAAA title at Oak Mountain Championship Golf Club with a 283 on May 1, capturing area low medalist honors for the second consecutive year.
Only five qualifying teams shot under 300 at area in Class AAAAA with defending state champion Starr's Mill leading the charge as the favorite to repeat with a 253, followed by Veterans (262), Carrollton (283), South Effingham (285) and Ware County (292).
Of course, it will have been nearly three weeks in between area and state, which always proves to be a difficult balancing act for coaches.
First-year Carrollton head coach Jarrod Hogan said it's been pretty much business as usual during the layover, but he also knows the girls are excited to get back out and compete.
"I think we've handled it real well. We've been playing some of the best golf we've played all year in recent weeks," Hogan said. "I think we're heading into state looking real good and playing top golf."
Carrollton was able to go to Peachtree City and play a practice round last week on the state course, so the girls have a pretty good idea of what to expect come Monday, as they'll also be able to get a practice round in on Sunday.
"There is a ton of sand. There is fairway sand on every hole," noted Lady Trojan assistant coach Joel Gray. "Our girls are not as used to that. So we've had to work on that a little bit. Obviously, we want to stay out of it. But if we do, get in the fairway and take your lumps and give a stroke back. But overall the course is pretty fair. The greens are very similar here to Oak Mountain, so putting has been pretty good for us. It's not a long course, so I think the girls will be in pretty good shape, as far as being able to play with other teams there."
Taylor Gray has actually played at Braelinn a few times, dating back to a tournament last fall, and she doesn't feel it will be too overwhelming for any of her younger teammates.
"It's not too bad. Just a little sand here and there that will get in your way. But I'm pretty confident with our ability to play there," Taylor Gray said.
Along with the senior leader, only one other Lady Trojan golfer has competed on the state stage as sophomore Abigail Duke returns after getting a taste of it last spring as a freshman, while current freshmen Morgan Gray and Caroline Fjeran are making their first appearance at the state level.
"I think they'll be fine. They're excited, but we've played a lot of golf this year. So they're really freshmen, but with 12 tournaments and summer golf and all that stuff, I think they'll be fine," Joel Gray said.
Hogan said Taylor Gray has served as a strong resource of knowledge and leadership in getting the underclassmen up to speed and making sure they're as prepared as possible for each event.
"She's keeping them calm throughout the practice rounds and throughout practice. She'll give them pointers when needed, depending on what shot is being taken and just playing smart golf," Hogan said.
As one of three local girls' programs competing at state next week with Central being one of the top contenders in Class AAAA and Bremen in Class AAA, Joel Gray said it would be neat to see all three squads win state titles.
"We're excited and I think the other two local schools also have a great chance. Definitely Central and Bremen. Obviously, Central has got a great team and Bremen in AAA. I think it would be cool if we all came back with a state championship. That would be awesome," Joel Gray said.
The Carrollton girls last won state five years ago in 2013 and this spring marks the best opportunity to do so again since that time.
"There's not a huge gap. In previous years, we were just glad to go to state. But now if we play well and (Starr's Mill) has an off day, who knows?" Joel Gray said.
And for the lone senior among the group, it marks a somewhat bittersweet farewell. Of course, a strong finish will definitely help ease the emotions of it all coming to an end.
"It's kind of surreal that four years has come and gone. I'm just excited to play some good golf. I've had my best season thus far, been the most consistent this year I've ever been," Taylor Gray said. "My goal is to shoot high 70s, low 80s for both days."