Perhaps the finest hour in the history of Mount Airy women’s golf, to date, came on the evening of October 23, 2017, in Pinehurst.
The Lady Bears had just wrapped up the first day of competition in the two-day NCHSAA 1A/2A state golf championship, and the unthinkable seemed suddenly possible. With 18 holes left in the championship, a 1A traditional school stood in second place overall, a mere 10 strokes away from winning a 2A state championship as a 1A school.
The dream faded away the next day, as 2A Currituck County got red-hot on the links and pulled away from the field. But Alyssa Cox, Bailey Flippen and Mattie Noonkester ignored the memo that 1A traditional schools aren’t supposed to win medals in such events. They gutted out a solid performance on day two and ended up, officially, as silver medalists. And unofficially, as the 2017 1A state champions.
All three are back this season, along with three teammates who all have a chance to make the scorebook on a given day. And they all harbor dreams of going back and finishing the job this fall. But first things first.
“Our main objective right now is to win the conference championship.” said Lady Bears head coach Tommye Phillips, who is beginning her 20th year with the program. “The girls are focused on that, and we’re going to take it one day at a time. We’re a good team, but we’ve got to beat some very good, experienced, well-coached teams in our conference at East Surry, South Stokes and North Stokes.”
All six members of the 2018 team were part of the squad a year ago. Three of them, Cox, Flippen and Emma Ratcliff, are seniors. Noonkester, Kayden Jenkins and Abbi Jackson are all sophomores. Phillips believes any one of the six are capable of posting a score good enough to count in the team tally at a tournament.
“They all have looked good in practice and I can’t wait to see what we do on the course,” Phillips said. “Emma has improved tremendously over the summer, and we’re looking for a lot of leadership from her. Kayden and Abby have also improved a lot, and Abby made the conference tournament last year and did very well there. We’re expecting good scores from all of our players this year.”
Of course, it all begins with Cox. Although some of her accolades are unofficial, she has been one of the top junior golfers in the Carolinas for the past few years. In 2016, Cox was the low-scoring 1A golfer in the state championships, as well as being the Northwest 1A Conference Player of the Year for both 2016 and 2017. Despite cutting back a bit on her junior golf schedule to play basketball for the Lady Bears, Cox has entered 11 tournaments in the last year and finished in the top 10 seven times, including a fourth- and a second-place in her last two.
“Alyssa works on her game constantly. She’s a wonderful young lady,” said Phillips. “I want to her to enjoy her senior year, but I know she wants so badly to do well.”
She and Flippen will be the co-captains for the 2018 team. They also share the distinction of also being official state champions in another sport. Flippen played for the 2017 and 2018 Lady Bears who won the 1A women’s basketball title, and Cox returned to the sport last year and earned All-Conference honors despite not starting. Although it is a tall task with having to beat 2A schools for the golf title, both are eager to try again for that elusive golf championship ring.
While Cox is thought of as the team’s star, Flippen has been the glue, according to her coach.
“We’ve put a lot of pressure on Bailey the past three years,” said Phillips. “She’s been our anchor, almost always bringing in the third score we needed. She always shoots well in the state tournament, and last year she helped keep us in the regional.”
Flippen had one of her best rounds of the 2017 season on its final day, offsetting a rare off-day by Cox. On day two of the state finals, she cut five strokes off her score from the previous day, enabling the Lady Bears to finish second outright by a single stroke.
Noonkester was a revelation as a freshman last year, and Phillips believes she is just scratching the surface of her potential.
“Mattie is a promising sophomore golfer, and she works very hard on her game,” said Phillips, who believes that she can also make some noise on the junior circuit.
The bad weather earlier this month has cut into the team’s preparation time, but the Lady Bears still have some time to get ready for tournament action. The first official match isn’t until Sept. 10, when Mount Airy will host the rest of the conference at Cross Creek. They will scrimmage against East Surry and several other schools on the Aug. 29 at Pilot Knob.
“We’ve really got to get out and play some holes. That’s what the Lady Bears have always done, we get out and play,” Phillips said. “But everyone else is in the same situation with the weather.”
Three days after the Lady Bears’ memorable performance at last year’s state finals, the team was honored as the “Best in 1A” at a Mount Airy football game. And Phillips says that kind of support may be the most important thing of all.
“The Mount Airy women’s golf program would not be where it is without the support of our administration, our community, and the people here at Cross Creek,” she said. “I can walk out on the street and someone will say ‘how about that golf team?’ Everyone is behind us 100 percent.”
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.