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Red River breaks 21-year drought by winning North Dakota state boys golf team title

The Grand Forks Red River golf team poses with their ND State A Championship trophy. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Medalist Justin Nelson of Wahpeton hits an approach shot on the 18th hole during the ND State High School golf championship at the Grand Forks Country Club Tuesday.2 / 2

Grand Forks Red River junior Adam Van Raden had a wide swing of emotions at the end of the North Dakota state Class A boys golf meet Tuesday at the Grand Forks Country Club.

With a chance to force a playoff for the individual title with Wahpeton's Justin Nelson, Van Raden missed an eight-foot putt on Hole 18 and dropped his putter in disappointment. It was the second-straight year Van Raden had lost out on a state title on the final hole.

Less than 30 minutes later, though, Van Raden and his teammates were posing with the state championship trophy for the team title—breaking a 21-year drought for the Roughriders.

"It was tough," said Van Raden, who had a three-stroke lead entering the day. "I hit a couple of nice shots toward the end, but I couldn't close it out."

And the first team title for the Riders since 1996?

"It's awesome," Van Raden said. "We've had the ability to win every year I've been here, and we finally got it."

Nelson, who became Wahpeton's first state champion since Marty Berg in 1976, entered the day four shots back in fourth place. The senior came charging back and held a one-shot lead on Van Raden through 17 holes but was in a precarious position following his drive on 18.

Nelson's tee shot was tucked behind a tree. Instead of playing it safe and tapping around the tree, Nelson went for the green. His second shot on 18 drilled the tree and dropped about six feet from Nelson.

"I wanted him to punch it out," Wahpeton coach Jeff Ralph said. "But he said he could hit it, so I backed off. You can second-guess, but I've tried to talk him out of shots before and he's hit them. His next shot (after hitting the tree) was fantastic."

Ralph said Nelson's demeanor after hitting the tree was key.

"He put his bag next to his ball about six feet away and looked at his shot and said 'I've got this one easy,'" Ralph said.

Nelson's putt to win it wasn't easy. The 6-foot putt was uphill with some slant.

"It was a stressful round, but I grinded it out," Nelson said. "I had to make a good putt for bogey. It had about six to eight inches of break."

Van Raden finished in a tie for third place with teammate Mat Halvorson. Van Raden missed the putt to force the playoff, as well as the next short putt.

"Two years in a row he's had heartbreak on the last hole," Red River coach Merle Mikkelsen said. "The one good thing is he still has a year to go. He could've been in a playoff very easily."

West Fargo Sheyenne's Cole Johnson finished second.

Johnson's performance nearly vaulted Sheyenne to a team title, despite trailing the Riders by 10 strokes entering the day.

The Riders held on for a two-stroke victory—led by Van Raden, Halvorson, Keaton Wolf (12th) and Keaton Gilbertson (32nd). The Mustangs closed the 10-stroke gap to even halfway through the second day, but the Riders pulled away late.

"We've chased before and won," Johnson said. "We thought we could shave a couple of strokes from yesterday and give it our all. It's a little frustrating losing, but Red River did a great job. They gave us a shot, but we didn't capitalize."

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department for the past 13 years. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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