MADISON — Two visits to the WIAA state girls golf tournament have taught Kylie Walker that if you can't keep the experience fun, you might as well take up cribbage or euchre because you're more apt to find victory in those cards.
That was also the message the Westosha Central junior gave her teammates Monday when they arrived at University Ridge Golf Course set to defend their Division 1 state championship knowing there would be no shortage of teams motivated to deny them. The Falcons, meanwhile, kept their motivation in house and focused on sending lone senior Elle O'Reilly out with a bang.
After 18 holes? So far, so good.
"We kind of just showed up this morning (and said) like, 'Just play golf and have fun,'" Walker said after finishing birdie-birdie to shoot 3-under-par 69, take a share of the lead individually with Brookfield East freshman Payton Haugen and help position Westosha Central (307) comfortably ahead of Middleton (315) with 18 holes left in their time together this season.
"Our (No.) 3, this is her last time playing with us. I just let her know 'Let's just have fun today. What happens happens. Just play your game. Don't put so much pressure on yourself; kind of our 'been there, done that' mentality."
This time, they got there with a score significantly better than either round (319-318) a year ago, when they shot 637 over 36 holes to beat Hamilton (Sussex) by seven shots for their first state title. After going out in 157 on the back nine, Westosha Central fired a 150 finishing on the front behind Walker (33), twin sister Katelyn (37), O'Reilly (39) and No. 4 Chloe Brown (41).
The four counters in the team score combined to play the final four holes of the day in 2-under to pick up five strokes on Middleton, which played that same stretch 3-over. Westosha Central counted a 69 from Kylie Walker, a 73 from Katelyn Walker, an 81 from O'Reilly and an 84 from Chloe Brown in its 307; Middleton — third a year ago — counted a 73 from Vivian Cressman, a 79 from Ellen Close, an 80 from Amanda Beckman and an 82 from No. 5 golfer Maddy Wilcox to keep the Falcons within reach.
Brookfield East (320) and Union Grove (325) are the only other teams within 20 strokes of the lead entering the final round.
"We were really happy with how we played in the practice round (Sunday)," Falcons coach Ryan Dahl said. "They came out and stuck to the plan, which was about patience. Get ourselves to (Tuesday) and be in the last group. We had a goal of about 310 (or) 315 and that's right about where we are."
Much of Westosha Central's gain over a year ago could be linked to its play on the five par-5s. A year ago, the Falcons were 6-over on those holes on Day 1 and 18-over on Day 2; Monday, the four counters played them in 1-over.
"We hit some great shots into par-5s (Monday)," Dahl said. "They gave themselves some really easy birdies, which ... any kick-in is nice."
Birdies were abundant Monday on the front nine, which is where golfers competing for teams will begin their rounds. The top five golfers on the leaderboard made 15 birdies over the first nine holes with Kylie Walker and Payton Haugen accounting for nine of them while defending champion Riley Pechinski of Stevens Point added four of her own to bounce back from a 43 on the back with a 33 on the front.
"I was kind of mad after the first nine; I wasn't doing my best," Haugen said. "On the back nine, I managed to hit my irons closer to the hole. Putting overall today was not great as it probably should be, but I managed to still make birdies with my wedges and irons. To recover from 1-over with 4-under on the back, that just shows how motivated I was because I really want to win this tournament."