Christopher Wuensch, CWuensch@ExplorerNews.com
Nov. 9, 2005 - Sage Suffecool of Catalina Foothills High School's girls golf team stood outside the Copper Room of Dell Urich Golf Course, too nervous to enter.
With the final putt of the Class 4A state tournament barely in the hole, the action turned to the frenetic meeting room where coaches crunched numbers on calculators and players nervously digested the final score rumors that bounced off the walls like a super ball tossed in a tiny living room.
Instead of a lamp breaking, however, it was the hearts of Suffecool and her Foothills teammates - their state title hopes extinguished by a one-stroke loss to Cave Creek Cactus Shadows High School.
Cactus Shadows edged out Foothills 608 to 609 in the closest state final in the 10-year history of the 4A girls tournament. Before this year, the closest 4A state meet also involved Cactus Shadows, which lost to Scottsdale Chaparral High School by seven strokes in 2002.
Foothills would have repeated as state champs had it not been for the herculean effort of Cactus Shadow's Ester Choe, who put more than her golf bag on her back and posted one of the most dominating performances in the history of 4A girls golf.
Despite shooting a Class 4A girls record 9-under-61 on day one, it was Choe's 15-foot putt - in front of a gallery of more than 100 people - on hole 18 on day two that clinched the one-stroke win.
She also sank a 20-foot putt on hole 16 en route to shattering the two-day state tournament record by 17 strokes.
"She may have been the only high school player in the United States who could have done that," Foothills head coach Mark Polich said of Choe, the No. 6 ranked junior golfer in the nation.
The last time Foothills lost in the 4A also came on the clubs of Cactus Shadows, which upended the Falcons in the 2003 state tournament.
enough big tournaments when the pressure was on to know exactly how to handle it."
Choe, it is rumored, is contemplating turning pro this year and joining the LPGA. The 16-year-old junior won't be missed by Foothills, which has a number of rising stars of its own.
Next year the Falcons won't be flying under anyone's radar like this season. The squad will suffer with the loss of senior leaders Gideon and Flores, but will make up for it with state tournament experience. The Falcons' second team, numbers six through nine, finished the year with a 178.5 average, good enough for third overall in Southern Arizona.
One of those future stars is McHugh, who played herself into the final pairing on day two with Choe and Notre Dame High School's Taylore Karle, who is ranked No. 15 in the country, according to National Junior Golf Scoreboard.
"I think she was the best player on our team for that job," Polich said about McHugh, his "quietly confident up-and-comer." McHugh's sister, Kate, was the Falcons' other All-State finisher in 2004.
The sophomore McHugh will take a week off before starting back up doing what she loves to do. She'll be among the golfers taking part in Polich's rigorous golf academy, which begins in early December and continues until the start of the 2006 season.
The training camp - Falcon Elite Golf Academy - was the off-season home to every player on this year's Foothills' squad.
"I think the thing that made this the most heartbreaking is that they started working for this tournament last Dec. 4 and they really didn't stop," said Polich.
For players like McHugh, getting back on the course may be the best way to forget about what almost was.
"I'm not mad about second (place)," said McHugh. "I'm mad about the fact that we didn't prove everyone wrong.
"I still think, even though we didn't win, we proved that we were something."
A feeling of vindication should soon dry the tears and replace the sore sensation in the throat for the Falcons. Before the season, Foothills wasn't given much of a chance to repeat as state champs with the loss of three of its top five scorers, including two-time state champ Andrea Ratigan. Ratigan bolted for Sabino High School after a squabble with Polich and seemingly took the state title hopes with her.
"They said without Andrea we had no chance," said Foothills senior Alicia Flores. "I think we defended our honor. We proved that we can do it by ourselves."
Ratigan and Sabino finished with a two-day total of 682, 73 strokes behind Foothills. The Sabino senior shot a 74 on both days to finish fourth overall.
The Falcons had five players shoot in the 70s. It was the first time a team had more than three accomplish such a feat.
Four of those players finished in the top 10 individually, earning a spot on the all-state team. The Falcons were paced by Laura McHugh, who finished sixth overall shooting 74 on day one and 75 on day two for a total of 149. Following closely behind the sophomore was Flores, tied seventh 80, 72-152; Suffecool, tied seventh 76, 76-152; Jesse Bluestein, 10th 79, 77-156; and senior Kelly Gideon, 12th 81, 77-158.
The Falcons lowered its season average from 164 to 160 over last year's squad, which featured two all-state players.
"By far it's our best team," said Polich. "They supported each other and they understood that high school golf is a team sport. My team last year, my state championship team, didn't understand that. They thought it was an individual sport."
The one-stroke loss, however, left the Falcons racking their memories for that one shot that cost them dearly.
"There are so many strokes we could have all just made," said Gideon after the match.
The par-3 hole 17 seemed to cause the Falcons the most fits. Polich estimates his squad was up three or four strokes as a team entering the 17th hole, one surrounded by water in the front and to the right. As a team they tallied four bogeys and a double bogey on the short but treacherous hole. Even Choe logged one of her two bogeys over the two days on 17.
The difference came down to experience.
"If there was one little piece missing that was probably it," said Polich about Choe's big-tournament résumé, which includes playing for the United State in the PING Junior Solheim Cup. "They just had not played in