LOCKED IN & LOADED
Masi Smith’s favorite kind of ice cream is pistachio.
Smith, a sophomore on Rifle High School’s girls golf team, admitted that her teammates think she’s weird for liking pistachio ice cream. And she’s different not just for her preferred flavor, but because some of her teammates can’t decide on a favorite ice cream.
The Bears, however, have had plenty of opportunities to try different flavors of ice cream over the past two seasons. That’s because Rifle has won every tournament it has played in since the beginning of last year except for one, when the Bears finished third at the Class 4A state championships.
Longtime Rifle girls golf coach Roger Walters started the incentive of victory ice cream at the beginning of last season, promising to take his team out for ice cream in whatever town they happen to be playing in.
“We’re starting to run out of new places to go,” Walters said with a smile.
Overall, the Bears have won 15 of their past 16 tournaments, including last year’s Class 4A Western Slope Regional at Yampa Valley Golf Course in Craig. Then-sophomore Elly Walters won medalist honors with a 1-over-par 73, and that performance was followed by her sixth-place finish at the state tournament.
But unlike her freshman year when she was winning most of the tournaments she played in, Elly Walters doesn’t need to finish atop the leader board for Rifle to compete for a tournament title. And she’s fine with that.
“It’s been awesome,” said Walters, who unlike past years is no longer the automatic No. 1 golfer on the team. “It definitely takes a lot of pressure off, but it helps me to get better.
“When we had our qualifying round for our first tournament of the season, I qualified third,” she continued. “Every day you have to show up, and I think that’s made me a lot better. And that’s great, because it shows that anyone on the team can do just about anything on any given day.”
Smith’s play has been especially sweet in helping Rifle continue its success. Her even-par 71 that won the Tiger Invitational at Bookcliff Country Club on April 3 was six shots better than second-place finisher Gracie Olkowski of Grand Junction. In that same tournament, Walters took fourth, with teammates Isabel Feichter and Savannah Seay tying for fifth place.
Coach Walters said that kind of depth presents problems most coaches would like to have.
“We left three girls at home who could very easily be playing varsity golf for any other team out here,” he said after the Bears won the tournament title at the Central Invitational at Tiara Rado Golf Course on March 29.
Walters and Smith shared medalist honors at the Black Canyon Invitational in Montrose on March 22, but Smith has kept medalist honors all to herself in every other tournament she’s played except one, when Olkowski notched a one-shot victory over Smith at the Central Invite.
She practically grew up on the golf course: her brother, Kyler, plays golf for Colorado Mesa University and her late grandfather, Jack, was a longtime golfer and coach at Rifle High School. That kind of experience has helped her stay focused on the course regardless of who’s in the field or who she’s paired up with.
“I grew up playing like it’s me against the course,” she said. “I always play against the course, and I don’t worry about what my competitors are doing until the end of the round.”
While golf being a family affair is a great benefit to Smith and Walters, not everyone on Rifle’s roster has that benefit. What has been a benefit, Roger Walters said, is a Flightscope golf simulator that Rifle Creek Golf Course head professional Kyle Daniel purchased this past winter.
The program analyzes angles and potential flight paths of a ball after a swing, allowing anyone who uses it to quickly make needed adjustments.
With that, along with what coach Walters credits as a strong junior golf program at Rifle Creek, Rifle feels it can be in the thick of things at this year’s state tournament, and this season, the Bears have moved down to the Class 3A level. The state tournament is scheduled for May 22 and 23 at Broadlands Golf Course in Broomfield. Prior to that, they’ll have to do well at the Class 3A Region 4 Tournament on May 8 at Battlement Mesa Golf Course.
But like Rifle, last year’s Class 4A team champion, Colorado Academy, also dropped to Class 3A. Kent Denver is another team coach Walters feels could contend for a state title.
The Rifle coach hopes he’ll need money for ice cream when the season ends.
“They all have some really tough kids, and I don’t think we’re too far off,” Walters said about the contenders. “On a given weekend if everything went really, really well for us, you never know. We could sneak in and win a state title.”