After lost golf season due to the pandemic, Grand Forks golf teams find themselves in a unique spot
Grand Forks Red River enters this season as the three-time defending state champions, having won the tournament in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Nate Olson walked around Village Green Golf Course last week, the East Region's first boys golf meet in two years, and noticed a lot of things had changed.
"There were so many kids, when we went around that first meet, where I was like, 'I don't even know who these kids are,'" said Olson, the Grand Forks Red River coach. "There are so many new faces.
"You look at the kids who are seniors now, they were sophomores the last time we had a real season. Not a lot of sophomores compete at the highest level. A lot of the seniors now were probably JV players the last time they played."
A lot of the state's teams are lined with first-time varsity players, which is what makes the Grand Forks teams unique.
After finishing 1-2 at the 2019 North Dakota Class A state tournament, both Grand Forks Red River and Grand Forks Central bring back rosters with plenty of experience. More than half of both squads have played at the state tournament.
Red River shoots for four in a row
Red River enters this season as the three-time defending state champion, winning it in 2017, 2018 and 2019.
Three current Roughrider golfers participated in the 2019 state tournament -- senior Zach Hinschberger, sophomore Saylor Kuenzel and sophomore Carson Skarperud. Junior transfer Cooper Freije also golfed at the state meet as a member of West Fargo Sheyenne's team.
Hinschberger is the leader of the group.
He lettered on the varsity team as a seventh-grader and helped the Roughriders to state titles as an eighth-grader, freshman and sophomore.
"When he was a sophomore, he felt like a senior on the team," Olson said. "Now, I feel like he's a super, super senior, because we've had him for so long. He has a lot of local course knowledge about how we play certain courses, what are the best ways to play them, certain things to look for on certain holes and certain things to ignore about other players' habits that might bother other kids. His experience is invaluable, because so much of it is mental and preparation."
Hinschberger shot a 79 at Village Green in the first meet of the season, finishing third individually. The Roughriders finished fourth as a team. They hope to improve on those totals Wednesday during Red River's home meet at King's Walk in Grand Forks.
"We were a little lower than what we expected, but nobody played fantastic," Hinschberger said. "I think we'll all improve this week and going forward. A lot of us have grown up playing at King's Walk. We know it really well and we always play well there. Hopefully, we can place quite a bit better due to our familiarity with the course."
Hinschberger said the focus will be on improving throughout the season so the Roughriders are playing their best for the East Region meet at King's Walk and the state tournament at Hawktree in Bismarck.
"We do have very high hopes for the state tournament," Hinschberger said. "We're going to try to keep building to peak at that time. That's really the thing I've learned the most from all my previous years playing in the state tournament. You really just need to peak for those two days and that's what matters."
Central's strong top five
Central, which finished three strokes behind Red River at the 2019 state tournament, brings back four of its six starters from that event.
Junior Brady McGarry, senior Joey Kennelly, senior Carson Seng and senior Braden Panzer all played for the Knights in that tournament. Senior Jack Bryan has played varsity since his freshman season, too.
"It seems like they've been playing with me for many, many years," Central coach Josh Cichy said. "With that experience comes confidence. It's kind of nice to know what I'm going to get, it seems, from meet to meet. My expectation for those guys has heightened over the years. They've all improved their games and they're a solid core to have. I don't have many guys going in and out of the lineup."
Several different Knights have the potential of posting the team's best score on any day.
Of the returners from the 2019 state tournament, McGarry and Seng posted Central's best scores. But Kennelly started this season at No. 1 ahead of them and had Central's best score at Village Green.
"I didn't really know what to expect at Village Green," Cichy said. "Joey played at No. 1. That was based on his scores leading up to that meet. I think we only had two days where we played holes. Walking around with those guys, he struck it pretty well and scored pretty well. It's kind of a crapshoot. I didn't know who I was going to put at No. 1 until that morning.
"Everyone was right around the mid-80s. My expectations are higher. We played poorly, but it's early and the weather was bad. I know we'll get better."
At Village Green, Fargo Davies finished first, followed by West Fargo Sheyenne, Fargo North, Red River and Central. But the East Region's coaches aren't exactly sure what to expect the rest of the season.
"I was talking to other coaches and looking at the rosters, and there are a lot of new names on the rosters with the loss of last season," Cichy said. "A lot of those kids graduated. I saw a lot of new names. I really don't know what that's going to be like. We could be fifth like we were at Village Green or we could finish as high as first any given day."
GF Red River
Coach: Nate Olson.
2019 state tournament finish: First place.
Top golfers: Sr. Zach Hinschberger, jr. Cooper Freije, soph. Saylor Kuenzel, soph. Carson Skarperud, jr. Jake Grandstand, jr. Brandon Riesinger.
Coach Olson says: "The courses in the area have been very accommodating to our large teams and that has contributed to our competitive culture. They are really good about it."
Coach: Josh Cichy.
2019 state tournament finish: Second place.
Top golfers: Sr. Joey Kennelly, jr. Brady McGarry, sr. Carson Seng, sr. Jack Bryan, sr. Braden Panzer, jr. Hunter Anderson, jr. Dominic Gerszewski, jr. Kyle Fulton.
Coach Cichy says: "We've got five guys that can really carry us and do work. We'll have some different names in that sixth spot. That can be good. It pushes guys to work hard and get better at practice."