As a constant force during Kapaun Mount Carmel’s three-year reign atop Class 5A girls golf, it’s hard to imagine senior Emma Whitaker would have much left to achieve.
Yet while each of Whitaker’s high school seasons has ended with the euphoria of celebrating team titles with the Crusaders, her quest for an individual state championship has been tantalizingly unfulfilled.
After finishing fifth as a freshman and helping Kapaun fill a 30-year void between team titles, Whitaker finished second as a sophomore, one shot behind teammate Hannah Perkins. Last fall in Kansas City, Whitaker again took second, losing a one-hole playoff to St. James Academy’s Caroline Klemp at Dub’s Dread.
“It’s definitely a goal I’m working toward,” said Whitaker, who plans to sign a letter of intent with Oklahoma State in November. “It goes through my head a lot. My main goal is the team first – they’re my first priority.
“Having the individual title would top it off and be a great way to finish.”
The table couldn’t be set much better for a grand finale, as Kapaun will host the 5A tournament Oct. 17 at Crestview Country Club – the Crusaders’ practice site. But Whitaker intends to savor the preceding weeks sharing leadership duties with senior teammates Vivian Brown and Erin Johnston as the Crusaders attempt to nurture their depth.
“At times, people focus on things like, ‘Do you feel any pressure? Do you feel like you have to win?’ ” Whitaker said. “I guess I’m not looking at it in a negative way. I see it much more positively because it’s my last year here and I’m just trying to make a lasting difference for the younger players and leave that legacy.”
Whitaker enters the season coming off a busy summer in which she won the Kansas Women’s Golf Association Junior State Championship and competed in several tournaments against talented golfers from across the country. She won the state’s Trusted Choice Big “I” qualifier and finished in the top 25 at the national tournament in California.
“I kept finding myself as a player,” Whitaker said. “Golf is something where you can improve anywhere and everywhere, every day. That’s definitely what I tried to do this summer. I was really in my element.”
Not that Whitaker needed to do much more to impress Kapaun coach Dan Harrison, a former Wichita State women’s coach who replaced Corey Novascone last season. Harrison said Whitaker’s drive and determination to succeed put her in an elite class with other great athletes he has coached.
“I think she’s a little more relaxed in the sense she knows where she’s going,” Harrison said. “A lot of kids during their senior year, if they’re still trying to catch a coach’s eye, it really gets them on edge.
“She knows that Oklahoma State loves her and they want her and they’re counting on her, and I think that’s relaxed her.”
Harrison watched Whitaker’s bid for last year’s 5A individual title slip away when her tee shot on the first extra hole came to rest against a tree, forcing her to scramble to try to extend the playoff with Klemp. Moving forward, both coach and player are aware of the potential pitfalls of Whitaker making her title quest an obsession.
“We’ve got to keep finding ways for her to enjoy the game and enjoy the ride because it goes so quick,” Harrison said. “I want her to have a great finish to her senior year, but I want her to enjoy the process because I think that will relieve any pressure and allow her to just free-wheel it, so to speak.”
Said Whitaker: “The one thing is I can’t think about it too much. I’ve just got to go out and play my game and wherever I end up, that’s where I end up.”
CITY LEAGUE GOLFERS TO WATCH
Carroll: Sydney Lashley, sr.; Kimberly Pham, sr.; Sydney Ward, sr.; Lakin Shelton, jr.
East: Sae Hee Choi, sr.; Isabelle Shepherd, sr.
Heights: Ari Cook, jr.; Lauren Powell, jr.; Natassja Norwood, so.
Kapaun: Vivian Brown, sr.; Erin Johnston, sr.; Emma Whitaker, sr.
North: Emma Hernandez, jr.; Lynsey Fleming, so.
Northwest: Whitney Weiford, sr.
Southeast: Taylor Gallina, sr.; Sania Saeed, jr.
West: The Pioneers are restarting their program this season.
South is not fielding a team.