AUSTIN — Meredith Ward lovingly cupped Rachel Ray’s face in her hands.
“How’d we do?” Ward cooed.
“Eighty-nine,” Ray said with a big grin.
“Momma’s proud of you. That’s my baby girl.”
As the lone senior and the only member to actually win a state championship, Ward has taken on a motherly approach to helping lead the Salado girls golf team back to state for the first time since they won it in 2010 — when Ward was a freshman.
“The other day at practice, we were messing around just trying to relax and I don’t know, I just (joked) I wanted to be called ‘momma’ or something,” Ward laughed.
“Momma bear,” Ray interjected.
And like a real momma bear, Ward protected her cubs from the elements Thursday, fending off blistery, 40-mph winds for a 39 on the back nine and carded a first-round 9-over-par 80 to spot the Lady Eagles a 19-shot lead after the first day of the University Interscholastic League’s Class 2A state golf tournament at Roy Kizer Golf Course.
“In this weather, to be up that much is a great feeling, but we all know from previous tournaments that we can’t be content tonight,” Ward said. “Tomorrow we just have to come out like it’s a first day again because it can change at any moment.”
Ward’s 80 put her three strokes back in third place behind individual leader Kate Rimer of East Bernard (77) and Alpine’s Rashae Skillern (78).
Both Alpine and East Bernard are tied in second with a score of 374. Along with Ray’s 89, Kate Goldsmith finished with a 92, Sarah Colley carded a 94, and Molly Rodeffer came in with an even 100 as Salado’s high scorer.
“Meredith is a competitor. ... She can be focused, she wants to win. She’s kind of the mother hen of our girls and she leads by example,” Salado girls coach Ty Brown said. “I think that’s essential for a state championship — or any championship — to have that leadership.”
On the boys side, a senior-less Eagles squad rode a first-day 6-over-par 77 from junior Dane Hankamer to third place with an opening-round 344.
Hankamer sits tied with Whitesboro’s Zach James one shot behind overall leader R.J. Trainham of Holliday. The strong winds and sub-50 degree temperatures wrecked havoc on most scores Thursday, especially later in the afternoon when the boys were playing.
Hankamer and fellow junior Kyle Heiner (88) each had to take three drops apiece, two of which came on the same hole for Hankamer.
Hitting into the wind on hole No. 5, Hankamer’s tee shot hook left and landed about a foot in the wooded area surrounding the course. Taking a drop by rule, Hankamer then sliced the ball right, landing on a hill and rolling back into the woods before finishing the first of his two triple-bogies for the day.
“It was insane, I’ve never seen this course play this tough,” Hankamer said. “(No. 5) was definitely a wake-up call, ... You couldn’t afford to hit a bad shot because the wind would take it to whatever side the woods were on.”
The wind caused many golfers to alter their swings to accommodate.
“When I hit into the wind I hit a lot of four-iron punches just keeping it under the wind, just staying out of it,” said junior Kase Spears, who shot an 84 along with a 95 and 114 from Javier Cruz-Cortez and Brandon Womac, respectively.
Ward finished with an 80 despite only one birdie on a par-4 No. 11, paring 10 of the 18 holes, including shooting 1-under-par between holes No. 10-14 before bogeying on the final four holes — all going against the 40-mph wind.
“It was brutal … I was walking and I could barely walk straight,” Ward said of the wind. “But it takes a lot more focus and we did that today.”
But it was a season-low tying 89 by Ray — just an eighth-grader when her older sister, Lea, teamed with Ward to secure the Lady Eagles’ fifth 2A state title in 2010 — that came as a pleasant surprise.
“I never had the true feeling (about being at state), but out here, I didn’t feel all this excitement and the little bit of stress,” Ray said. “It was just a great feeling.”