By Brian Nielsen
At first, the new girl was just a rumor.
“I remember hearing everyone say how good she was,” Ally O’Dell said. “I said, ‘No way a freshman can shoot that.’ Then the first time I saw her off the tee, I knew. ‘Oh, she really means business.’ “
Yes, no one was fabricating stories about this Lauren Chappell, who had all kinds of Junior Golf Association success moving to Charleston from Arkansas when her father, Rand, became an assistant basketball coach at Eastern Illinois University.
“I was pretty intimidated at first,” said Morgan Sherwood who as a sophomore was one of the top returning players on Charleston High School’s girls’ golf team but immediately took a back seat to the freshman Chappell. “The reputation. She lived up to that reputation. She also is one of the biggest goofballs I’ve ever met. We became friends quickly.”
So started this gang of goofballs who now attending different colleges but still cherishing those van rides to and from matches when coach Deb Landsaw sometimes had to tell them to quiet down in the vehicle or the place they stopped to eat.
Oh yeah, these fun-loving Lady Trojans also won the 2016 IHSA Class 1A state championship.
That marked the year Chappell became the first girl in state history to win three individual golf championships in the IHSA, which started its girls’ golf state series in 1975 and split into two enrollment classes in 2006.
If Chappell was not already on the path to greatness that includes the 2016 Illinois Junior Golf Association title –– and now as a junior ranking 15th on SMU’s list for par-or-better rounds in college competition, winning the state high school tournament as a freshman in 2103 ensured it.
“That fueled my obsession with golf,” Chappell said.
Starting with a bogey-free 4-under-par 68 at Decatur’s Red Tail Run Golf Course but still trailing defending championship Sabrinna Bonanno, a senior from Norridge Ridgewood, by one stroke after Friday’s first round, Chappell then responded to a challenging Saturday.
“I remember the weather being really bad,” Chappell said. ” The back nine I remember coach Landsaw walking along and keeping me calm. I remember that more than any shot.”
While Chappell’s 1-over 73 didn’t equal her Friday score, she weathered the Saturday better than anyone else by five strokes with her 141, which now ties for the 10th best score in IHSA girls’ state tournament history.
She led Charleston to an eighth-place finish as a team just a couple of months after the Lady Trojans had to scrounge to find a full team of six girls.
“I’d been to a golf course before but not in a competition,” said Aislinn Parish, another freshman on the 2013 Lady Trojans. “My brother (Wesley) had played. My freshman year they only had five girls and needed six for a full team and (boys’ coach) Stan Adkins came to me about playing.”
The next year as a sophomore Chappell repeated as champ, leading with a 75 after the first day and following with a 74, parring the last three holes for a one-stroke victory over runner-up Morgan Savage of Rochester.
The Lady Trojans moved up one spot to seventh in the team standings in 2014 and then took the third-place trophy in 2015 although Chappell did not three-peat as the individual medalist.
In her junior season, Chappell’s 75 led the field after the first day but then she carded an 8 on the par-4 No. 9 on Saturday, dropping her to tied for fourth at 155, three strokes behind champion Maddie Hurt of Elmhurst IC Catholic.
“I kind of had a disaster on that hole and fell apart,” Chappell said. “It was a good lesson to be learned. The next year, I had a bad hole, too, but I knew that one hole wasn’t going to beat me. I was solid the rest of the way. It was a good lesson to be learned.”
In the bounce-back senior year, Chappell led after the first round with a 74. After a bogey on No. 12 in the final round, she responded with four pars, a birdie in the par-3 17th and a clinching par.
Her 149 won by three strokes over Richmond-Burton’s Mackenzie Hahn while the previous year’s winner Hurt was third at 153.
“I birdied 17 –– and once I made that putt I knew I was in good shape going to 18,” Chappell said.
Then there was this matter of checking the scoreboard.
To go with Chappell’s winning 149, Parish shot a two-day 172, O’Dell added a 173 and Chappell’s sophomore sister Paige had a 188 to complete the 100-over-par team score that was good for a team championship by a seven-stroke margin over second-place Nashville.
“I think I blacked out,” O’Dell said. “I don’t remember anything after that. It was definitely one of my best memories.”
Parish said, “My initial reaction was looking at Landsaw to see her reaction. I actually don’t remember what we did after that.”
The coach still rated some respect.
“We were hugging everyone,” Lauren Chappell said. “We didn’t dump any Gatorade on coach Landsaw. We would have gotten in trouble for that.
“Even though golf is an individual sport, you know being on a team it matters even more what you do.”
The championship meant the Lady Trojans could laugh and not lament one of the biggest gaffes of the tournament.
Basking in what she calls her best round ever, Friday’s 80 helping the Lady Trojans to the lead halfway through the tournament, Parish then had had a rough start to her Saturday.
“I went up to the very first tee of the last day and completely whiffed it,” Parish said. “Lauren was in the group right behind me and saw it. I don’t think anyone will let me forget it, unfortunately.”
These days, that story among friends ranks right up there with talk about O’Dell and Parish unknowingly hitting another player’s golf ball.
Or Lauren Chappell numerous times striking her foot with her putter after a miss on the green.
“I’ve tried that and don’t know how that couldn’t hurt,” Sherwood said.
While the three-time state championship has limited the punishment to her foot enough to play at SMU, where her collegiate career includes a 12th-place finish in the American Athletic Conference, her teammates excelled in other sports.
Parish played basketball for two year at Lake Land and now is studying exercise science at Eastern Illinois.
“Whenever Lauren comes home from school, I will tag along with her at the golf course,” Parish said.
O’Dell says the patience learned in golf helps her at times as a softball player for Transylvania in Kentucky.
“Golf was a hobby for me,” O’Dell said. “My No. 1 sport is softball, but I like winning –– and we won a lot in golf.
“Some people say golf can mess up your swing in softball, but, if I get in a rut in softball, I go out and hit some golf balls and it helps. I don’t know if anyone else does that. I guess I’m just weird like that.”
Sherwood was a four-sport athlete in high school, playing volleyball as well as golf in the fall, setting school records in basketball and qualifying for the state in track.
She has just completed a college basketball career, helping Southern Indiana to an NCAA Division II tournament berth only to be sent home when the postseason was canceled because of the coronavirus.
She also threw the discus for USI last year in track and field and plans to use her last season of eligibility next year doing that –– and also trying the javelin.
But she has not forgotten those days with the clubs.
“Golf, it was definitely the most fun,” Sherwood said.
With the NCAA granting another year of eligibility to golfers whose spring season was canceled because of the virus, Lauren Chappell plans to take advantage of that and is hoping some summer events can be played by July.
Whether she continues in professional golf remains to be seen.
“I’m not quite sure,” she said. “I am enjoying my education. I am just trying to live in the moment, which is college and golf.”
She and high school teammates can also revel in past success.
“I just remember a lot of fun,” Sherwood said, “and a lot of winning.”
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