VALPARAISO — Valparaiso senior Grace Cusson had worked year-round for this moment.
She spent every day this summer working for a successful senior year and another regional appearance. After recent struggles with slicing drives, Cusson's hours on the driving range finally paid off, as she took home the Valparaiso girls golf sectional individual title Friday.
“My driver finally came through today,” Cusson said. “I just knew that I was starting to rush everything, and that I was starting to just let it all get to my head. So today, I just tried to make sure that every shot I was taking my time and making sure everything was going through smoothly.”
Cusson's 78 led Valparaiso to the overall team title for the fifth time in six years. The Vikings advanced to the regional tournament Sept. 22.
Extra work on the mental side of golf made the difference, as Cusson said hours spent with swing coach Mat Blair and Vikings coach Bill Miller took the pressure off and allowed her to focus on having fun.
That fun extended to her teammates, as well — Valparaiso's 334 team score fell four strokes off the sectional record and 16 lower than the team's 2017 sectional tally. Junior Wynne Aldrich and senior Claire Lee both shot an 83. Annika Johnson added a 90.
This success came despite tough course conditions. After Valparaiso Country Club hosted the Porter Amateur Golf Tournament last weekend, Miller said the greens were faster and the rough thicker than usual.
“The course played tougher than the whole year that we play it as our home course,” Miller said. “I'm really proud.”
The top three teams advanced to the regional. As did the top three individuals not on advancing teams.
Regionals will take place at Battle Ground Golf Club near West Lafayette, where second-place Chesterton and third-place Portage will join Valparaiso.
Olivia Wood's round didn't start well.
Wood, the Indians' top golfer, stepped up to the first tee hoping to build on her 84 at the Duneland Athletic Conference meet Monday. Pulling out her driver, Wood took a couple of confident practice swings and got in her stance. Then, she shanked her shot short left.
A rough front-nine score of 50 ultimately derailed Wood's bid for the individual title, although the senior rallied for a 34 on the back nine.
“The front nine was terrible,” Wood said. “I couldn't make any putt on the front, and then I got to the back, and I shot 1-under for a comeback. It was a roller coaster out there.”
If Wood plays her entire round at the regional like she did on the back nine Friday, she would be a major threat to advance to the state finals. If Wood gets her putting worked out, she could be in a good spot.
“That's probably the only thing I really need to work on for my game right now — my short game," she said.
Madison Simms didn't have the distance of her two playing partners, but her accuracy helped her tie for a team-best score with a 100.
While Portage's Olivia Wood and Valparaiso's Wynne Aldrich whipped out drivers or woods at most tees, Simms stuck to irons. The conservative approach paid off, as Simms consistently hit the ball straight and kept it out of the trees.
Simms' clean round led Chesterton to second place, as the Trojans edged out Portage 410-414. Even with 2017 sectional individual winner Elyse Stasil having graduated, Chesterton didn't drop off: The Trojans beat their 2017 score by 10 strokes.
“This year, we've gotten a lot of new girls, and we've done a lot of prep to get them ready for this season,” Simms said. “We've improved so much from last year, even with losing such a key player to our team.”
The Wildcats may not be moving on to regionals, but junior Isabel Sitkowski said there's reason for optimism.
Sitkowski shot a 109, a 29-stroke improvement over her score two years ago at the sectional, and was one of three golfers who qualified for the regionals as an individuals.
Boone Grove's Katie Brei (111) and Annika Ehrlich (113) also advanced as individuals.
Hanover Central has a young and improving group, and Friday's conditions offered a unique challenge.
“The pin placements definitely today were all really funky,” Sitkowski said. “I landed in quite a few tricky spots, and I still managed to get out and make a good bogey or double-bogey.”
With another year of experience, Sitkowski said she thinks the Wildcats can advance and challenge for a spot at state.