Wichita Heights is the fourth largest 5A school in Kansas at 993 students, but none of those are wearing Heights golf polos this fall.
The Falcons have two girls golfers — a team so small it has merged with Wichita East for the 2018 season. The players will wear “Blue Aces” on their shirts until they reach the 5A regional tournament. This is a problem some of the Wichita area’s biggest schools are facing as coaches fight for participation.
Last season, Southeast didn’t field a team. The Buffaloes had three players, and the investment in a golf coach, equipment and tournament fees just didn’t add up.
“The administration said unless you’re seeing a significant increase, then we can’t really justify having it,” Southeast coach Darren Nighswonger said. “They’re not going to pay me to coach three kids.”
This season, Nighswonger knew he had to ramp up his marketing tactics to get girls out to play. He put posters up throughout the school, talked with girls who might be interested and ran information through the school’s daily announcements.
This year, the Buffaloes have five — two on varsity and three on JV.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s a little frustrating,” Nighswonger said. “It’s sad that that’s a good turnout, but the fact is, that’s a good turnout.”
Southeast is the fourth-largest high school in the state behind East, North and Garden City, but Nighswonger said the participation numbers come down to the demographics, opportunity and availability.
He said if kids aren’t shown golf at an early age, it gets less likely that they will pick it up later in life, especially in high school when so many other activities are happening.
“Southeast used to be kind of a country club school, and we’re not that anymore,” Nighswonger said. “But the fact is golf is a country club sport, and we just don’t get kids that have been exposed to it.”
But Southeast and Heights aren’t the only schools facing problems with getting girls to play golf.
Trinity Academy, a private 3A school of 245 students on the east side of Wichita, was supposed to be one of the top contenders for a state championship in 2018.
The Knights finished third in Class 4A last season, just 9 strokes away from a title. Trinity brought back two of the area’s top players in juniors Madison Slayton and Hanna Hawks but graduated three players. Coach David May said he had trouble finding anyone to replace them.
“I don’t know that I’m even going to be able to field a team of four,” he said during the summer. “I found one other young woman. She showed up to our first coaches meeting and said, ‘I have never played before, but here I am, and I’d like to learn.’ So there is a wide, wide spectrum.”
Slayton and Hawks finished in the top six of 4A in 2017. After a year of improvement and dropping into 3-2-1A, they still have the potential to compete for individual titles, but without experienced players behind them, a team title will be much harder to reach.
And that is disappointing, May said.
“I think the most important thing is to make golf fun and not this boring ball-after-ball game,” he said. “I think Madison and Hanna are both role models for not just golf but for life.”
May said the same problems are happening at Independent and Collegiate, two other private schools in Wichita, which draws the question: If big public schools are struggling and small private schools are struggling, who isn’t and why?
In talking with City League coaches, North’s Scott Baxter has a reputation of, “the overachiever.” He is the mogul for high school golf in the Wichita area, and though his Redskins aren’t always at the top of the leaderboard, they are almost always well-represented.
Girls golf state tournaments are held in mid-October. Baxter said he starts planning for the next girls season in January and starts recruiting within the school in July.
At freshman orientation, he sets out chipping nets and hitting mats and invites anyone to come by and have a swing. He is just looking for kids who seem to have a more natural motion.
This season, Baxter has 11 girls on his varsity and JV teams. North, Northwest, Carroll and Kapaun are the only City League schools to field a full varsity lineup this season.
He said that isn’t always the case at North. He has to work at it almost year-round, and sometimes it still doesn’t pay off.
“We all go through it, and I can’t explain it,” Baxter said. “But one of the best teams I ever had only had five girls. It’s just cyclical.
“It’s almost a fear thing. Once you get them there, they’re fine, but getting them out there that first time is like pulling teeth.”
Baxter said there more opportunities than ever for kids to golf in Wichita. Even with Clapp Golf Course closing, there are still more than a dozen courses in the Wichita area, youth tournaments and camps, and The First Tee, a developmental organization aimed at growing golf.
The problem is — after clubs, balls, a bag and clothes — all of those options can be unreasonably expensive for a high school student. Baxter said his teams hit in an unregulated field behind Sim Golf Course and have to walk around shagging their own balls.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the fruits of the labor yet,” Baxter said. “I hate to even say anything, but I think the city has good prices for kids, but if it could be more affordable for kids that are on a high school team so they could play all year, that would be awesome.”
Last year, the highest City League finisher in 6A came tied for 50th, and only four other girls qualified for the state tournament. But results aside, some of Wichita’s biggest schools and top programs are in a constant battle just to field teams.
And that is a problem, Baxter said.
“I’m all about participation,” Baxter said. “I think the only way kids are going to enjoy high school is to get involved in something, and golf is a lifelong sport.”