FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Here we are: almost a month removed from the 2016-17 golf season, and what did we learn about the Northern Arizona University golf team this year?
Well, for one, sophomore Sofia Anokhina is really, really good. So good, in fact, she pieced together the single-greatest spring season in Lumberjack golf history. Anokhina recorded a 71.23 scoring average in 17 rounds of play in 2017, and in 13 of those rounds, the native of Moscow, Russia, turned in scorecards at or below par. Her worst round of the spring came in her very last set of 18 at Big Sky Championships, which was a tournament she ended up winning anyway by three strokes with a 54-hole score of 2-over-par 218.
In total, Anokhina won four of the six tournaments she played in during the spring, with her best performance coming at NAU's host tournament: the Red Rocks Invitational in Sedona, Ariz. There, Anokhina tied the best single-round score in school history (5-under 67), while setting new records for the best 36-hole score (7-under 137) and 54-hole score (12-under 204).
Additionally, in her 26 rounds this fall and spring, Anokhina notched 80 birdies and a 73.00 scoring average—both single season records for the Lumberjack golf program. With two years of eligibility remaining, Anokhina is one win away from tying Eleanor Pilgrim for the most career wins in NAU golf history. It is interesting to note, though, that Pilgrim needed 35 tournaments to get to five wins. Right now, Anokhina has only played in 19.
"[Anokhina] always had the belief in herself," said NAU Head Golf Coach Brad Bedortha. "After the fall season, she went home during Christmas break and worked really hard. Since she has stepped onto campus, she has gotten both bigger and stronger. From a college golf perspective, that is kind of a rarity. With that strength, though, it has allowed her to gain more control over her body and be more consistent with her golf swing. You put all those pieces together and now she starts to believe that she can do this, that she can be great. And, as we saw this spring, [Anokhina] was great."
"This athlete is married to golf, as she would say," Bedortha continues, referring to Anokhina. "She eats, lives, breathes and sleeps it. For what she has been able to achieve this spring because of that dedication, it's phenomenal."
We also learned that as a team, the Lumberjacks were seemingly just always one round away from being great. The NAU squad was good this season, make no mistake about it, and the team showed flashes of brilliance at each tournament it played in during the spring.
In almost every tournament this spring, though, the NAU golf team was in striking distance of a top-three finish heading into the final round and only finished that high once (Red Rocks). This is not to say that the season was a disappointment, for it certainly was not. Rather, Bedortha welcomes the lessons from the 2016-17 campaign and views those shortcomings as opportunities for improvement: from his team and himself.
"We're not that far away," Bedortha attests. "Our issue has just been consistency and being able to get a good third and fourth scorer. The biggest areas of emphasis this offseason are going to be consistency and preparation. Our players have to understand that each round, each tournament is a big deal; it all matters. So being prepared from the onset of the 2017 fall season, I believe, will only help our efforts to become more consistent and reflect the kinds of effort [Graduate Assistant Coach Langley Vannoy and I] are looking for."
Now, the NAU squad will lose senior Kim Cifuentes, who graduated earlier this month. A great golfer in her own right, it could be argued that Cifuentes was an even better teammate and person. Throughout her three year career as a Lumberjack, Cifuentes' leadership both on and off the golf course was unparalleled, and she will be dearly missed.
With that said, there are a couple current athletes on the Lumberjack roster than could step up and fill that "team leader" void moving forward.
Anokhina is one of them, as her performance surely reflects the amount of work and effort golfers must practice in order to be successful, but soon-to-be-senior Kaitlyn Saum is another one to consider. After all, the native of Mesa, Ariz., finished with the second-best scoring average on the team this year and is most recently coming off an 11-place finish at Big Sky Championships.
In addition, NAU will also add a new golfer to the mix when freshman Lexi Keene, a product of Stockdale High School in Bakersfield, Calif., arrives on campus next fall.
"[Anokhina] leads by example, and [Saum] does the same," Bedortha upholds. "They're not overly vocal leaders, but they lead by their work ethic. Their examples are going to be huge for us next year."
The future of the Lumberjack golf program looks to be headed in the right direction. The biggest message has been, and will continue to be, consistency on all levels: mentally, emotionally and physically. If NAU can do that, they'll be poised to accomplish great things in 2017-18, says Bedortha.
"I feel like we have the pieces to be a great team, and I definitely have high hopes for them next year. As coaches, we're going to continue to build their character and preach the importance of putting in the work, putting in the time. As a team, if we do those things, then the results will hopefully show up in our favor. I'm very confident and comfortable with what we're doing as a program, and good things are going to happen if we continue on this path."