MADISON — At one point during another triumphant afternoon Tuesday, Chad Salay had checked all the boxes a high school golf coach could possibly check in one WIAA state girls tournament. Until the Prescott coach found one more.
His Cardinals were well on their way to a successful defense of their WIAA Division 2 state title (and the school's mascot had arrived at University Ridge Golf Course to join in the celebration). His daughter, Ava, was busy lighting up the front nine with birdie after birdie after birdie, making four in a row starting at No. 5 before a bogey at the par-5 ninth hole left her with a 2-under-par 70, and wrapping up a 14-stroke victory for her first WIAA state individual title.
What could possibly make his day any better? There was one way, but it was up to Middle Border Conference rival St. Croix Central to deliver the answer.
"I was kind of even checking on that toward the end of the round," Salay said of the Panthers' quest to close out their first state runner-up finish. "I was pullin' for 'em and wanting them to finish strong and get that hardware."
Sally Vangsness and Sydney Burgess delivered the exclamation point for St. Croix Central and the Middle Border. They combined to improve 10 strokes from their front nine to their back as the Panthers (720) held off The Prairie School (Racine) by three strokes for the runner-up trophy, finishing 49 shots behind Prescott in an order of finish all too familiar in northwest Wisconsin.
It marked the 11th time in 12 meetings between the two schools that they finished 1-2 on a team leaderboard, including the MBC Championship, the WIAA Prescott regional and the WIAA St. Croix Central sectional. While it marks the third consecutive year that Prescott has emerged with WIAA hardware (the Cardinals were state runners-up in 2019), it is the first time in four state appearances that St. Croix Central has hoisted a WIAA trophy.
"It's funny; I just told the girls we beat Prescott once this year in a (nine-hole) Middle Border match and that was it," Panthers coach Logan Kimberly said. "That's the only time this year we finished first and now we still take second at state, putting a little legitimacy on our conference and western Wisconsin golf. We all root for each other, for sure. They're a close group of girls. They're competitive, but at the end of the day they are rooting for each other."
Ava Salay, who started the day tied with the Panthers' Sally Vangsness atop the Division 2 individual leaderboard, made eight pars and one bogey on her outward nine (the back nine) and — with Vangsness stymied by a slow start (she played her first four holes in 9-over) — found herself ahead by seven strokes at the turn. After starting the front nine par-birdie-bogey-par, Salay went on her birdie binge to get to 3-under for the day only to bogey No. 9.
"After I came in with a good score on the back nine, where I had struggled (Monday), that gave me a lot of momentum going into the front nine thinking 'OK, I've got this now,'" Ava Salay said after finishing at 4-over 148 for the tournament. "I was just in complete control of my game. I just started knocking them close and sinking putts. ... It's never just given to you, obviously, it's always (earned). It's an incredible accomplishment that I'm going cherish, for sure."
She is the first public-school golfer to earn Division 2 medalist honors since 2022 LPGA Tour golfer Casey Danielson of Middle Border member Osceola in 2012. Salay is also the fourth golfer to earn Division 2 medalist honors in the same year that her team won a state title, but the 2019 and 2020 state runner-up is the first not from 13-time state champion Edgewood.
That does not happen if not for the growth of the golfers behind her in the lineup. Seniors Liz Rohl (87-84) and Jessica Heinsch (86-89) and junior Rhi Stutz (87-90) helped the Cardinals shoot a closing 333 for a 671 total — a 102-stroke improvement over their first state appearance in 2019 at U-Ridge where they earned the runner-up trophy, finishing 71 shots behind Edgewood.
"It's amazing how much they've improved since freshman year," Ava Salay said of Rohl and Heinsch. "I'm incredibly proud of both of them and just our whole team. I could not ask for a better team. We're all really upset that we have to leave each other after this tournament, but it was amazing, this past year and these past three years with the most amazing team."