by Tom Utescher
When the Pa. Interscholastic Athletic Association first introduced a state team championship for girls’ golf back in 2006, Mount St. Joseph Academy became the inaugural winner. The Mount repeated as titlist in 2007, and was the state runner-up in each of the next two seasons.
Last week the Magic were back out in York, Pa. and were once again making history on the par-72 course at Heritage Hills Golf Resort, where every PIAA team tournament has been played. In a three-day span, Mount St. Joe became the first school ever to capture the state individual championship and the team championship in the same year.
The two-round individual competition on Monday and Tuesday ended with a dramatic eagle on the par-five 18th hole by MSJ junior Isabella DiLisio.
With a total score of 148, she captured the PIAA Class AAA crown ahead two other District 1 standouts, 2013 district champ Jackie Rogowicz, a Pennsbury High School junior (who scored 150) and two-time defending state champ Erica Herr (151), a senior out of Council Rock North.
The single-round team tournament was held on Wednesday, and the Mount Magic won convincingly as a group. DiLisio had the best score on this chilly, partly cloudy day, a two-over 74 (39/35). Senior captain Alison Snakard carded an 80 (40/40), and junior Maggie Schoeller came in with an 85 (44/41). Megan Bray was next with an 87 (48/39), and her sophomore classmate Joanie Gannon turned in a 94 (51/43).
With the top four rounds making up the total team score, the Magic’s figure of 326 gave them a comfortable win over District 7 champion Penn Trafford, with its total of 370.
Penn Trafford is located near Pittsburgh, but it was a Central Pa. team, District 3 winner Central Dauphin, which had the second-best team qualifying score coming into the tourney from the regional finals. They wound up third, just a single stroke behind Penn Trafford.
McDowell High School, near Erie, was fourth with a score of 401, and Scranton Prep was fifth, with 401.
“Our team was very deep and very consistent,” remarked first-year MSJ coach Michael Brown, whose daughter Claire is a sophomore on the team. “They also just have a lot of grit, and today [in the team tournament] with cold conditions and a tough course they showed their perseverance. They just come through when they need to; look at Megan Bray shooting a 48 on the front nine, but then coming back with a 39.
“I give so much credit to Izzy [DiLsio],” the coach continued. “She played two full practice round over the weekend and two rounds in the individual tournament. Today, she comes back from that huge emotional win on Tuesday, she’s tired, and she still grinds out a 74, four strokes better than anybody from the other teams.”
“Even before I was in high school, I always wanted to win States,” DiLisio revealed. “It’s different than playing in the junior tournaments because you’re playing for your school and you’re playing for the championship in your state. It makes it extra special because you’re not just doing it for yourself.”
Back in grade school, the future MSJ star already knew about the golf program at Mount St. Joe. Former Magic standouts Victoria (’07) and Samantha (’11) Arena are members of the same club that DiLisio frequents, Talamore in Ambler. In addition, her grandfather participated in a golf league at Twining Valley, where one of the pros, Will Reilly, was the coach who guided the Mount to its first two state titles.
Obviously, she had an immediate impact as a freshman at the school, and in the 2012 season, when the PIAA created enrollment-based divisions for the first time in the sport, DiLisio won the Class AAA (large school) District 1 championship, and finished fourth at the state tourney.
This year, she related, “I had a really good summer in golf, and I was hoping it would sort of carry over into the high school season.”
She won all four Pennsylvania tournaments she played, while also becoming a qualifier for the U.S. Girls Junior Championships, the Junior PGA Championships, and the Trusted Choice Big “I” Junior Classic.
During the regular school season, she helped lead the Magic to an undefeated Catholic Academies season, as well as their 11th-straight league tournament championship.
However, during the first few weeks of October, she wasn’t playing some of her best golf. At the league tourney, she finished second to Villa Maria’s Cara Basso, the 2012 Class AA state champ. The District 1 winner a year earlier, the Mount junior was fifth this time around, and she came in sixth in the Eastern Regional Tournament that was the last stage before States.
Coach Brown recalled, “We went out for a day to practice at Whitemarsh Valley [one of MSJ’s home venues], which has fast greens like we thought we would see in York. It was just a little alignment issue; we got her left shoulder a little more towards the target, and she shot a 33 on the front nine that day.”
“I had some swing issues and I wanted to tweak things a bit,” DiLisio said. “I decided to switch putting grips because I was missing a lot of short putts. I started playing with a left-hand-low grip, and I haven’t missed a short put since.”
At the PIAA Individual Championships, District 1 was represented by a very strong group of players; DiLisio, Herr, and Rogowicz, and a pair of sophomores, Herr’s younger sister Madeline, and Radnor’s Brynn Walker.
In the Mount’s previous appearances at Heritage Hills, the weather had never really cooperated. The rain that had been forecast to descend during this year’s gathering bypassed the area for the most part, but temperatures were chilly and wind gusts frequently raked the course.
Undaunted, the Magic never balked at tackling the difficult weather conditions, and the challenges presented by the course itself.
Snakard, their captain, commented “It was fun because it was tougher than the courses we play in our school matches. It was longer, the greens were hard, and the rough was so heavy that once you were in there you had to hit an iron, no matter where you were.”
Add in some fiendish pin placements, many on little knolls with downslopes on all sides, and Heritage Hills caused even an ace like DeLisio to reflect, “This course kind of beats you up the way they have it set up. I was really feeling it today [in the team competition] because this was my fifth round here, but this was just as important as the individual part. You just try to hit the ball down the middle of the fairway, put it on the right spot on the green, and not get too greedy with your putts.”
Although they wouldn’t be competing until Wednesday, the other four players on the MSJ tourney team (and some other Mount team members) travelled to York at the start of the week to support DiLisio’s quest for the individual crown. The Mounties just couldn’t get enough of the sport; one evening a chaperoning parent observed them playing Wii® golf in their on-site hotel.
The leader on the first day, with a one-over 73, was Lauren Walker from Canon McMillan High School in western Pa., but five more strokes would climb onto her scorecard for the second round. After day one Rogowicz was one stroke back at 74, and DiLisio was sitting in a tie for third with Erica Herr, each with a 75.
The three District 1 players remained on track as the second round unfolded on Tuesday, and after each hit a par-four on the 16th hole, Herr led with a score of 65, followed closely by DiLisio with a 66 and Rogowicz with a 67. On the par-four 17th, DiLisio and Herr each met the standard, but Rogowicz’s five-stroke bogie raised her total to 72.
The 18th hole features a large water hazard that causes the end of the fairway to narrow and taper toward the right, with almost all of the green lying directly behind the rectangular manmade pond. It’s a play-it-safe par-five, with conservative golfers carefully approaching the front of the hazard with their first two strokes, then crossing the water to the green for a one or two-putt finish.
Still trailing Herr by a stroke, DiLisio couldn’t be overcautious. She hit her drive down the middle, while Herr’s tee shot drifted a little into the rough, making a second shot to the green a risky proposition for the two-time champ.
“Because of the hazard, there’s a really small area where you have to hit it,” DiLisio explained, “but I knew I’d be on the green in two, and I thought if I hit an eagle I’d win it. I hit a five-iron on my second shot, and when I saw the ball take a big hop I worried that it might have gone into the [sand] hazard on the other side. I walked up and saw that I was probably a foot into the fringe, so it was a very putt-able ball.”
After surveying the terrain, she settled in to try for an eagle putt of roughly 25 feet, and she wasn’t shy with her stroke.
“Izzy rammed it in,” Brown related. “It hit the back of the cup, and I’m telling you if it hadn’t gone in it would’ve gone 12 feet past the hole.”
The former Temple University coach added, “Even taking my personal attachment into account, I’d have to say it was one of the most exciting sports moments I’ve personally witnessed.”
The victorious DiLisio said, “It’s not like I always fist-pump, but the fist-pump just kind of came out because I had so much adrenalin going. It was one of the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard; it was a pretty dramatic way to win a tournament.”
Herr recorded a double-bogie on the hole, ending up with a 151 that dropped her behind both DiLisio and Rogowicz and into a tie for third with opening-round leader Lauren Walker. Radnor’s Brynn Walker shot a two-day total of 160, tying for fifth-place with another 10th-grader from District 1, Maddie Sager of Owen J. Roberts High School.
Early in the morning of her fifth day at Heritage Hills, DiLisio was warming up on the putting green for the team competition, and she admitted to Brown that she was feeling fatigued.
“I said to her that this is when you just have to reach down and grind it out,” the Mount mentor remembered. “She was able to do it because she has that ability to just focus on what’s right in front of her. If you look at her demeanor, most of the time you could never tell if she had an eagle or a double-bogie on the hole she just played.”
Looking at the average results that had been put up by rival teams earlier in the 2013 season, the Mounties felt that if they could just maintain their regular level of play, they would win the title.
Snakard noted, “While I was out there I had no idea of exactly how we were doing as a team, but we all had been feeling pretty good, so I thought we would put up some good scores. I had a couple doubles [bogies] today, but my putting kind of saved me. All the girls worked so hard and they really wanted this, and it’s such a great end to my senior season.”
Every other team had to figure rounds up in the 90’s into its official tally, and most had to count at least one score over 100. If the Magic had scratched out DiLisio’s total and added in their fifth-best score, they still would’ve won by two-dozen strokes.
“It was an amazing end to a journey that started back on August 12 with our first round at Flourtown Country Club,” Brown said. “They’re a wonderful group of kids, and I’m very proud of them.”
DiLisio will now home in on the college selection process. The heavily-recruited junior has been on official visits to schools such as Duke, Virginia, and Notre Dame, and expects to announce a verbal commitment before Thanksgiving.
Snakard, the current senior, wants to continue her golfing career in college, and is still in the process of sorting out her options.
“She was a great senior captain; she was at every practice and every event, and we’ll definitely miss her,” Brown said. “Fortunately, we have a lot of talented young girls in the program, and if I’m being honest I’d have to say we certainly have a chance to be even better next year.”