It might be expected that Nina Nicpon would be a halfway decent golfer at the least.
After all, her family owns Palmira Golf Course in St. John. But proximity to a golf course does not automatically equal quality in the most vexing of athletic pursuits. You have to work at it.
Nicpon, a senior on Marian Catholic’s golf team, works at it. And her game has improved to the point she’s the team’s leader as her senior year begins.
Nicpon was the best Spartan in Monday’s Marian Catholic Invitational, carding a 6-over par 77 in a round where she was 10-over on nine holes, but scored four birdies to come home with a respectable total that took fourth place.
Earlier in the year, she’d scored 75 on the same Coyote Run layout in a Mid-America Junior Tour tournament, and won the Illinois Golfer Challenge at Glenwoodie.
"My golf game has improved since then," Nicpon said of the progress since a 93 at Glenwoodie took first place. "My short game and my approach shots are better. At Glenwoodie, I had good control of my driver."
Nicpon’s leadership will be key on a team larger in numbers this year, but still lacking depth of talent. Marian Catholic has eight players on this year’s squad, compared to four last season and 12 in 2011. But Gilley regarded only four with enough experience to let them tee it up in the opener. The other four were in class.
Nicpon said the limited numbers were tough getting used to last year.
"It was pressure," she said. "You always had to be on your best game. It was difficult at times, but eventually I got used to it."
By last year’s playoffs, Nicpon was a solid No. 2 behind senior Bree Veazey.
The Spartans are not alone in having fewer players compared to the halcyon days. There’s no girls team this year at Crete-Monee or Illiana Christian, which have fielded them in the past, and only one girl playing at both T.F. North and T.F. South.
"It’s the economy," Gilley said. "Golf’s an expensive sport, and there’s competition (from other sports). I try to emphasize that players join the (Illinois Junior Golf Association) and play in tournaments."
That can also run up a bill.
The reluctance to play even ran in Nicpon’s family. Younger sister Mira, a casual golfer whose competition was mostly in Palmira’s junior series, was planning to try out for Marian’s volleyball team as a freshman. On the first of the month, she decided to go out for golf instead, and was rewarded with a 99 in the opener at Coyote Run. Her future is bright.
"This will be a great experience for her and for me," Nina said of being on the same team. "Are we competitive with each other? I think so."
Taught by her father Rich, Nina’s game has improved so she regularly scores in the mid 70s to low 80s. Consistency like that could attract college offers. For now, the focus is on Marian Catholic.
Said Gilley: "I need some girls who can put some time into improving their games."
Like Nina Nicpon has.