DECATUR -- Ever since her freshman year, Mount Carmel senior Allyson Armstrong has been awaiting this senior year of golf. Tirelessly refining her game, working with a a swing coach, playing in the offseason, all building for one last hoorah -- her first IHSA 1A Girls Golf State Tournament appearance.
After a remarkable season most recently capped by a record-breaking Sectional victory, Armstrong and her teammates are preparing for the tournament of their lives, this weekend's State Tournament in Decatur, Ill.
All those long hours, those early mornings, the frustration along the way, all of that's set to come to fruition on Friday when they tee off at Decatur's Red Tail Run Golf Course.
Armstrong's one of three seniors -- Faith Witsman and Nevaeh Brock -- on this Lady Ace golf team, each of whom have led by example for the younger girls -- sophomore Daisy Schrader, and freshmen Lillian Gottman and Madelyn Young. The underclassmen, specifically Gottman and Young may turn heads with their scores, but the seniors have played an instrumental role in their development.
"That's exactly -- people expected those two to do so well because they've been in so many tournaments -- but the leadership of Allyson and Faith, they were able to help the freshman," Mount Carmel Head Girls Golf Coach Karin Kelsey spoke of her upperclassmen. "There's a transition between junior golf and high school golf and they were able to give them the experience of theirs to help them with their jitters and things like that. They also stepped up their game and all year long it was Allyson, Lillian and Mady sharing the medalist position and that was good for the whole team."
Armstrong said she's been the oldest on the team since her sophomore year, so she's naturally assumed the leadership role out of necessity and has embraced it.
"Just showing them it's ok to have a bad round and their bad rounds are still amazing scores, it's just insane," Armstrong said. "Being their leader has been fun, it's been one of my favorite parts. We're friends, not just teammates, we're friends."
Witsman, Armstrong and Kelsey say has been kind of the school bus for the younger girls, volunteering to give them rides as needed and step up whenever she's called upon.
"Faith's almost like the little school bus," Kelsey said. "She has to give rides to the younger kids, from school to practice, from practice to home, she's always willing to give the girls a ride. Faith's stepped up and that's a great leadership role that she's kind of jumped in and taken care of the girls that way."
Brock has other obligations Kelsey said so she hasn't been able to devote as much time to golf as Armstrong or Witsman in their time at Mount Carmel, but she's steadily improved throughout the course of her career as well.
"On the other hand, since her freshman year she's just brought her score down, she's dropped 30 strokes off her score from an 18-hole tournament," Kelsey said. "That's amazing as well.
Schrader was quite impressive last season as a freshman, but was joined as a standout underclassmen by Gottman and Young this year, each of whom have been quite impressive.
"The two freshmen, Lily Gottman and Madelyn Young, they come in playing par and four over as their worst round," Kelsey spoke of her underclassmen. "They had the experience these other girls didn't have. At such a young age they were already playing junior golf tournaments all over the Tristate. That gave them the experience to make easier to transition into high school sports. Daisy Schrader she brought her score down this year, she wasn't as nervous at tournaments as she was her freshman year, it's usually a little overwhelming your freshman year. She's just maturing in her golf game and just has that experience now that makes her a solid player as well."
As coach, Kelsey's done a tremendous job of keeping such talented, but young girls focused and hungry as well. Instead of worrying about the girls they're competing with or how they're doing in an outing, Kelsey has preached over and over to her girls, just play against your scorecard.
With such a blend of veteran leadership and talented golfers compacted together, the Lady Aces have aspired to new heights for the program and have enjoyed a tremendous campaign. They've only lost four matches this season, three to Effingham-St. Anthony and one to Gibson Southern in Fort Branch, Ind.
Fortunately, the Lady Aces ensured they won't have to face St. Anthony any longer.
After finishing second in the Effingham Regional to St. Anthony, Mount Carmel was able to advance on to Sectionals as one of the top three schools and were fortunate enough to host.
Kelsey's often joked to her girls all year about her girls' potential if they're all on their game on the same day -- she got her wish in the IHSA 1A Girls Golf Mount Carmel Sectional.
Her girls posted an exceptional score, breaking their own school-record in the process by recording an astounding 307 team score.
"Like what do you say to that," Kelsey said. "I wasn't expecting that to be honest. All I could say was, 'Wow.' All day long, wow. These girls, they did it. The top five girls on the team played their absolute best on the same day. As a coach you want all six of your girls to play their very best on the same day. The last three weeks the girls have been a little tired and one girl or another girl just didn't have a good round. This particular day everybody did, which was so awesome about breaking records. It was fun."
Their score granted them first place in the Sectional, the first time they've claimed a Sectional crown in program history. St. Anthony finished fourth in the tournament, slotting them just two strokes shy of advancing -- surely a pleasant sight for Mount Carmel.
Kelsey said Armstrong's fallen just a couple strokes shy of a state appearance each of the past few years but now, she had at last accomplished it.
For Armstrong, it was a dream come true -- she finally earned her trip to state, and not just as an individual, but with all of her teammates joining her as well.
"It meant the world," Armstrong spoke of winning Sectionals. "There's a picture on Facebook of me, Faith and Nevaeh holding the plaque and I said, 'This is the moment I've been waiting for all my years of high school.' I'm not kidding, I've been waiting for that moment. Karin: "And working hard for it." Allyson: "Winters, there was no offseason the past three years."
Kelsey and Armstrong affirmed that the girls have experience at Red Tail Run, having played there some a few summers, along with some prior experience for Gottman and Young in junior golf.
Despite the familiarity, they'll be battling against the finest golfers in the state. The last time the program advanced this far was back in 2015, when they finished fourth in state.
Having advanced past Regionals and Sectionals, Kelsey feels all the pressure's off for his girls. Her advice entering such a daunting field of foes?
"We don't want to get ahead of ourselves, we don't want to take anything for granted," Kelsey commented. "Yes, we're playing solid but you never know when someone's going to have a bad day. Hopefully someone else will come and pick that up if somebody does have a bad day. We would be thrilled to bring back first, second or third place, any one of those. In 2015 we placed fourth, so if we could just improve that, that's what we're going for. We'd love to be in first place, but today, I just have to stay calm and have those girls be prepared to play their best and hopefully get one of the trophies. There's three trophies, we'll take any one of them."
"None of us know what to expect, it's all of our first times going to state," Armstrong interjected. "We're playing against the best people in the state."
"The best 12 teams in the state and I'm glad [Allyson] realizes that," Kelsey continued. "We just have to stay calm, we're going to go up and play against our scorecard, play our game and see where we come out."
Armstrong says she hopes to play collegiate golf, so her scores in the State Tournament could serve as a launching board for her collegiate golf recruitment. She did say she'll feel some nerves when she tees off on Friday, but Kelsey's hoping Armstrong can do well, not only to set the tone for her team in the tournament, but to help further Armstrong's golf career.
"When you get to the state level tournament, Sectionals, and the state tournament itself, that's when college scouts take a look at your scores," Kelsey spoke of Armstrong. "For her personally because she is the only senior that wants to play college golf. This is a time for her to shine and have colleges take a look at her. This is a really important time for her to play a good round of golf."
And if they could somehow pull off off a top three state finish?
"That would be totally crazy," Armstrong said. "To me, that would be like wow, all your hard work has extremely paid off. For girls in the future, to make them want to play. I want them to experience the same thing I did because playing golf has changed my life."
They officially embarked on the journey by leaving Mount Carmel on Wednesday night to a stellar crowd on hand at West Berwick ready to send them off. The two-day tournament will begin on Friday, with Brock set to be the first Lady Ace to tee off at 9:24 a.m. Witsman will tee off around 9:33 a.m., followed by Schrader at 9:42 a.m., Armstrong at 9:51 a.m., Young at 10 a.m., and Gottman at 10:09 a.m.
We'll be sure to provide updates on the Register's Facebook page as to the girls' scores as they come in.