Grace Welch photo 10-8

Madison Edgewood's Grace Welch watches her tee shot on the ninth hole at last Tuesday's WIAA sectional at Pleasant View Golf Course in Middleton.

Grace Welch and Madison Edgewood feel the pressure to extend the string of titles for Wisconsin’s winningest girls golf program.

The Crusaders have compiled a state-high 13 championships, including seven straight Division 2 titles after the WIAA split the tournament into two divisions in 2003. Madison West and La Crosse Central are a tied for a distant second with five titles apiece.

Welch is no stranger to pressure — or success. She settled into a role as Edgewood’s top golfer as a freshman, before even setting foot in a high school classroom. Welch went on to place third at the 2016 state tournament and led the Crusaders to a runner-up finish last year, finishing fifth individually.

“(Welch) is already a natural leader because she’s really mature for her age,” coach Peggy Gierhart said. “She doesn’t have a lot of ego, and she really cares about the team, so that spreads.”

Edgewood will make its 21st state tournament appearance today and Tuesday at University Ridge Golf Course after a 38-shot victory in its host sectional last Tuesday. That achievement followed a 50-shot victory Sept. 26 at the Prairie du Chien regional.

+1 
Grace Welch mug 10-8

Welch

Asked what the Crusaders need to do to improve on last season’s runner-up finish, Welch said: “I think we just need to support each other and realize that it’s not life or death. But (also) be competitive and be aggressive and have the mindset to win.”

On a team with no seniors, Gierhart credits Welch’s maturity for her consistently high performance, and said the junior’s relaxed demeanor helps the team bounce back quickly after a tough day or hole.

“I think because she has such a calming effect on the team, that they just like to be around her,” Gierhart said.

Welch’s influence shows not only in team attitude, but on the scorecard, too. Edgewood junior Anaka Leske and sophomores Caitlyn Hegenbarth and Grace Jaeger each shot the same score as Welch (93) in the Prairie du Chien regional — a four-way tie for medalist honors.

“It was pretty funny, actually. I looked at the scoreboard and I was like, ‘No way, we did not just all shoot the same thing,’ ” Welch said. “That kind of made me smile. It was really fun to share that with the team.”

But the smiles were short-lived. The Crusaders knew they would have to improve their individual scores in order to get past sectionals and compete for a 14th state title. The team focused on working on the mental aspect of the game, crediting Gierhart for sharing a golf psychology article that helped the girls stay composed during pressure-filled situations.

Welch (80), Hegenbarth (82) and Leske (84) each improved their regional scores by nine strokes or more last Tuesday in the sectional at Pleasant View Golf Course.

Now Edgewood is focused on course-specific strategies for the state tournament.

“(We’re working on) sand traps,” said Hegenbarth, who finished 10th at state last year. “U-Ridge’s sand traps are huge and they’re always a struggle.”

“I think everything is important, but it’s the bunkers out there,” Gierhart added. “I think bunkers win state championships at U-Ridge. There’s not a lot of places in Madison where you can practice out of the bunkers, and they’re unique there, so we’re really going to focus on that for the next few days.”

Expectations are sky high for Edgewood, ranked ninth by the Golf Coach Association of Wisconsin and the highest-ranked team in Division 2. But each member of the Crusaders’ top four will tee off at University Ridge with previous state tournament experience, relieving some of that pressure.

“Just playing in front of a crowd or just the pressure that Edgewood gets because of the expectations for us to do well, (that’s) hard on the girls,” Gierhart explained. “Experience is really important, especially on the golf course and knowing that they’ve been there before, it just makes a really big difference.”