The 339 miles between them has not kept a mutual respect from developing between Ava Salay of Prescott and Norah Roberts of Racine.
"Ava is a great competitor and golfer, and I enjoy having her to compete with during the summer," Roberts, a senior at Union Grove High School, wrote in a text interview with Wisconsin.Golf. "She is a very consistent player, so I know that she will put up a good round no matter what. Having her around to compete with all summer is a big motivation for me to continue to work hard and improve."
Wrote Salay of Roberts: "Norah is an excellent player, always very consistent and competitive. It’s been great to compete with her over the years, but this year especially. We went toe to toe on many events and it was always fun."
Their long-distance rivalry reached a point this summer in which they went back-and-forth on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis. Their nearly identical body of work was best reflected in Salay winning the Wisconsin State Women's Match Play Championship (with Roberts in the field) and Roberts winning the Wisconsin State Junior Girls Championship (a match-play event with Salay in the field).
No matter how the numbers were crunched, they led to this determination: Salay and Roberts had distanced themselves from their peers in this year's senior class, but they couldn't shake each other. Therefore, they will head off to college as the co-No. 1 golfers in the Wisconsin.Golf girls Class of 2023 state rankings.
Salay, who also shared the Golf Coaches Association of Wisconsin girls player-of-the-year honor with Westosha Central junior Kylie Walker, will attend the University of Wisconsin next fall. Roberts, who earned the Wisconsin PGA Junior girls player of the year for the second year in a row, will attend North Dakota State.
"Every year the class of 2023 gets stronger and stronger," Salay wrote. "I think throughout the entire class of ’23, you see countless hard working and motivated golfers. This makes it even more special to be at the top of such a competitive class.
"I’m very happy that I’ve been able to push through some lows in my golf game and be where I am today. I’m excited for the future of my game."
The past 12 months weren't too shabby for Salay.
She began the summer with a memorable come-from-behind victory over Menomonee Falls' Lorenza Martinez in the finals of the Wisconsin State Women's Match Play Championship, scoring a 2 and 1 victory over the Loyola (Ill.) golfer despite a steady downpour at Watertown Country Club. Salay went on to record top-15 finishes in the top two in-state women's amateur events — the Wisconsin State Women's Open (T-12) at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia's Woodlands Course in Green Lake and the Wisconsin State Women's Amateur (T-15) at West Bend CC.
Her summer junior resume included a victory at the Morgan Stanley Tour Championship (71-69), a T-5 at the WPGA Junior Championship (79-73) and a T-6 at U.S. Girls Junior Championship qualifying (76). Salay ended her season by repeating as WIAA Division 2 state champion with a 75-74 card that topped all Class of 2023 golfers at University Ridge GC in Madison where her Prescott Cardinals rallied to win their third straight state championship as a team.
"There are many tournaments I am very proud of this year, but one in particular I’ll never forget is the Women’s State Match Play," Salay wrote. "I think this was a big stepping stone for my game. I was able to rise up in terrible conditions like it was just any other day. I believed in myself strongly through the whole tournament and I never doubted myself.
"The confidence I gained from (that) event carried with me the rest of the season. It was a special moment to know that I had achieved something I had been working toward for so long."
Roberts, meanwhile, pointed to her victory at the Sherri Steinhauer as a turning point in her season. She was three shots behind Kenosha's Walker after an opening 75 at Blackhawk CC in Madison, but rallied with a final-round 68 at Pleasant View GC in Middleton to force a playoff, which Roberts won with a birdie on the first extra hole.
"I knew going into Day 2 at Pleasant View, the leaderboard was going to move around." Roberts wrote. "Pleasant View is always a moving day even more so than most second rounds in junior tournaments. Being able to put together a good round the second day to shoot 68 was a great feeling.
"Additionally, winning in a playoff against Kylie Walker made it even more memorable. Kylie is a great player, and someone who I always enjoy competing against."
Roberts' road to victory at the Wisconsin State Junior Girls Championship also had its share of memorable moments. After qualifying 10th with a 76, she edged UW-La Crosse golfer Claire Kelbel of Sussex in 19 holes in the first round of match play, dispatched Class of 2027 standout McKenna Nelson of Beaver Dam 4 and 2 in the quarterfinals, outlasted Brookfield's Payton Haugen, the No. 1 golfer in the Class of 2026 rankings, in 20 holes in a semifinal thriller and then closed out the week at Hartford GC with a 3 and 2 win over Loyola (Ill.) recruit Grace Durkin of Green Bay.
The top junior finisher at the Wisconsin State Women's Amateur (10th), Roberts finished in the top 10 of every major junior tournament she entered. In addition to her wins at the State Junior Girls and the Sherri Steinhauer, she also turned in runner-up finishes at the WPGA Junior and the Lake Arrowhead Invitational, a fourth-place effort at the Golf Coaches Association of Wisconsin College Showcase, a sixth-place showing at the Morgan Stanley Tour Championship and a T-8 finish at the U.S. Girls Junior Championship Qualifying and the WIAA Division 1 state championship.
"From the 2021 season to the 2022 season, I think the biggest improvement that I made was with my putting," Roberts wrote. "During the off-season and throughout the summer, I focused a lot on my consistency with putts inside 10 feet. This was something I thought was really important considering that being able to make putts to get up and down, to save par, or to make birdie are what keeps your round going.
"As the season got going and I began to feel more confidence in my putting, it was easier to make those birdie putts and make those par saves that I otherwise would have missed."
As much work as it took Salay and Roberts to get to the head of their class, it will take even more effort to stay there.
Seven of the top eight golfers in this year's rankings will be playing NCAA Division I golf next year at this time. No. 3 Cassie Psuik of Greenfield (Loyola-Ill.), No. 4 Hannah Dunk of Milton and No. 5 Riley Pechinski of Plover (both UW-Green Bay), No. 6 Grace Durkin of Green Bay (Loyola-Ill.) and co-No. 7 Kate Bogenschutz of Grafton (Montana) have all signed their National Letters of intent as has co-No. 7 A.J. Powell of Appleton North, who became the first signed recruit for UW-Parkside as it prepares to become Wisconsin's first NCAA Division II program when it debuts next fall.
Psuik won the Lake Arrowhead Invitational and was the low-junior at the Wisconsin State Women's Open (T-9) while Dunk won the Dells Junior Golf Championship and was third at the Sherri Steinhauer and Morgan Stanley Tour Championship. Pechinski, the 2021 WIAA Division 1 state championship, had jaw surgery in April and was at less than 100% most of the summer before winning the Wisconsin Valley Conference championship and finishing T-10 at the WIAA state tournament in her title defense at University Ridge GC.
But the two biggest surprises of the summer were Durkin and Bogenschutz.
After having back surgery last fall and missing her junior season at Notre Dame (Green Bay), Durkin returned in June and fashioned an impressive resume that included her runner-up finish to Roberts at the Wisconsin State Junior Girls, and a pair of third-place finishes at the Morgan Stanley Tour Championship and the Lake Arrowhead Invitational, leading to the scholarship offer from Loyola (Ill.). Bogenschutz had a T-12 finish at the Wisconsin State Women's Amateur and top-six showings at the Dells Junior Championship (T-6), Morgan Stanley Tour Championship (T-6) and the GCAW College Showcase (T-5) before signing her NLI with the University of Montana.
"The Class of 2023 definitely has a lot of really good players, which makes the competition in summer tournaments so much better," Roberts wrote. "I think everyone just builds off of each other, and is trying to become as good as they can. Everyone is very competitive and wants to see how good we can become individually and as a group, but at the same time everyone contributes to making it a great environment in which everyone gets along and has fun.
"Seeing the depth that the class of 2023 has, it means a lot to me to earn the No. 1 spot along with Ava. I've grown up playing in tournaments with both Cassie and Hannah, and it's been an unforgettable experience to improve along with them."