By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily Herald
AUSTIN - Winds were gusting and drives were going everywhere, but the Salado girls golf team kept its composure and ended the first day of the Class 2A state golf tournament right where it wanted to be - in first.
Leading with a first-round total of 350, six strokes ahead of runner-up Melissa, the Lady Eagles battled 30-mph winds and nerves from their own heightened expectations and put themselves out front Monday at Roy Kizer Golf Course.
"We haven't played our best golf," Salado coach Bobby Peschel said. "You hope that getting today's nerves out of the way, tomorrow we settle down and we get a little bit more into thinking about what we're doing instead of where the ball's going."
Salado senior Rachel VanHoozer made up for a rough morning on the front nine. She salvaged her bogey- and double
bogey-filled round with a pair of early birdies on No. 6 and 7 and parred six holes on the back nine to lead the field with a 39 and finish in third-place with a 9-over-par 80.
"When the wind catches every shot, it gets frustrating, but you have to learn to play with it," VanHoozer said. "After nine holes, I shot 41 on the front and I said, 'I've got to start playing through the wind,' and I did that and I came back with a 39. You just have to learn how to deal with it because it's not going to stop."
She dealt with the wind superbly on the difficult par-5 No. 17, reaching the green on her third shot but two-putting for par.
"Today I just decided to play smart and it really turned out to work for me," VanHoozer said.
What worked for VanHoozer went horribly wrong for junior teammate Taylor O'Rear, who hooked her first shot on 17 into the wooded hazard to the left and was forced to take a one-shot penalty drop as she double-bogeyed the hole.
Struggling with her drives all day and failing to make a single putt for birdie, O'Rear nevertheless finished with a respectable 11-over 82 and sits in eighth place despite opening the morning with a triple-bogey and bogeying six other holes Monday.
"I just lost my swing and I couldn't stop getting in trouble, and bogeys kept just rolling over and I couldn't get a putt to fall all day long," O'Rear said.
Helping the Lady Eagles' championship cause were 94s from senior Leah Ray and junior Haley Kemp, as well as a 105 by Meredith Ward, who was making her first trip to state. Salado is seeking its first 2A team championship since 2006, and its fifth girls title.
"We just need to focus, with the wind and everything, it's hard, but we've just got to keep that mental game in there and know that we're playing for a goal and we're not going to be satisfied until we reach it," Ray said.
Putting was an issue for most of the golfers on site, as faster greens resulted in several putts running well past the hole, including at least five from O'Rear.
"When you leave it an inch or so (from the hole) every single time, it just gets frustrating," O'Rear said. "And with the many long putts, it'd be just right at the hole and curve out at the end. It seemed like I couldn't read the breaks right and it just kills you."
With wind speeds expected to be cut in half, the Lady Eagles expect bigger things and even lower scores for the final round today.
"I just think we should come out and play our best, VooHoozer said. "It should be a pretty day and we'll take advantage of it," VanHoozer said.
Lampasas' Gonzales struggles - Lampasas sophomore Carmen Gonzales had a rough introduction at the girls Class 4A state golf tournament, finishing the first day with a 22-over-par 94 after she triple-bogeyed three holes and quaduple-bogeyed No. 6 - a 352-foot par-4 - at the Jimmy Clay Golf Course.
Making her first trip to state, Gonzales parred just seven of the 18 holes and bogeyed another five holes as she finished 13-over on the front nine and 9-over on the back nine.