PACKERS ACE STATE
As fierce competitors, the West Fargo and Shanley boys golf teams are combat-hardened veterans. The two have been neck-and-neck for the past few years, and the Deacons always seemed to get the edge.
That changed last week.
For the first time in their school's history, the Packers won the North Dakota Class A state tournament at Heart River Golf Course in Dickinson after shooting a two-day team score of 606 - 16 strokes ahead of runner-up Shanley.
But aside from their on-course determination, the Packers and Deacons get along well. To illustrate this, the teams formed a human pyramid after the tournament, and smiled for the cameras.
It was a happy end to the tournament, and one West Fargo won't soon forget.
"They never got too high, they never got too low. They just stayed an even keel," West Fargo co-coach Chuck Gad said. "But they were extremely excited. This has been their goal since Day 1."
West Fargo got out to a strong start Tuesday, shooting a 312 for a seven-shot lead over trailing Shanley in some brutal conditions.
"It was just unbelievably windy," said Gad, who noted gusts were reported to hit the 45 mile-per-hour range.
Still, the Packers persevered, spurred in part by sophomore Riley Johnson, who led the day after shooting a 72 despite the unrelenting wind.
"That was an unbelievable round," Gad said.
Connor Holland hit a 78 to tie for fifth place, and Nick Evin was in a tie for seventh with 79.
But the big surprise was Payton Johnson, who shot an uncharacteristically high 83 that put him in a seven-way tie for 23rd. The senior struggled on the front side after shooting a 46, but what happened next, Gad said, sparked the Packers even more than Riley Johnson's round.
"Payton set the tone for us," Gad said. "After his 46, he was crushed. But he said, 'Coach, I'm going to grind it out on the back.' And he did."
Payton Johnson rebounded with a 36, bringing confidence and assuredness back to the Packers' ranks.
"We were a little shaky after nine holes; Shanley really shot well. But after that, it was over. We really stomped on the old jugular," Gad said.
By Day 2, any jitteriness was gone as West Fargo cruised to a 294 that left the rest of the field in the dust and sealed their win.
Riley Johnson improved by a stroke to finish the tournament with overall medalist honors after shooting a two-day 143, and earned All-State honors.
"He's going to be someone to watch," Gad said.
Holland shot eight strokes better than his previous round for a 148, which catapulted him to second place and beat out Bismarck Century's Jacob Dehne by four strokes. Holland also was named All State, as well as Senior Athlete of the Year.
Nick Evin cracked the Top 10 to tie for eighth with a 156 as West Fargo's final All-State honoree.
Payton Johnson kept momentum up from the first round's back 9 to finish with a Day 2 76 and a tie for 15th place. West Fargo's other two golfers also held their own. Seventh-grader Cole Johnson shot 169 to tie for 47th, and junior Chase Pulczinski shot a 175 to tie for 65th.
"Man they played well," Gad noted.
The Packers managed to win a state title after several years of trying. Part of that stemmed from their three top seniors - Holland, Payton Johnson and Evin - who Gad said will be sorely missed.
"Next year is going to be awfully tough. You can't lose Connor, Nick and Payton and be up there," Gad said. "It will be different, but it won't be over.
"Our strength was to really have them focus on the mental part of the game, and they became pretty mentally tough and I think that was what (co-coach) Steve Anderson and I did it. They really liked that.
"We never raised our voice to any kid for 15 years. All we want to hear is the positive, and if there is any negative, they just work on it. They really respond to that, and that was our thing. And I'm not afraid to say we really did well, in that regard."
The Packers boys golf title adds to an already long list of spring sports championships, including baseball and softball. For Gad, this does nothing but prove one thing: West Fargo has a good thing going.
"When the Packers do well, it makes my heart feel good because I was there when we weren't so good," he said. "I think it's great because I bleed Packers."