Naperville North junior Caroline Pierson said girls golf coach Greta Williams has a simple message for her team.
"Our coach always says to start strong and finish stronger," Pierson said Tuesday afternoon at the DuPage Valley Conference tournament at Phillips Park Golf Course in Aurora.
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Pierson birdied her first hole and made it a bookend finish to remember: the Huskies' second-rated player sank a 7-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th hole to finish with a 3-over 75.
Not only was it 9 strokes lower than her previous career best and the top score for Naperville North; the final Pierson birdie would acquire a significance of its own when the final team scores were tabulated.
With able support from Taylor Arenson, Christine Grzesick and Blayne Yarmat, Naperville North ended the four-year Wheaton Warrenville South league championship run by a mere stroke, 327-328.
"I feel like I really pulled it together today," Pierson said. "My tee shot was pretty good (on No. 18), so that gave me the confidence to play the hole well."
Arenson overcame six 3-putts to post a fifth-place 78, while Grzesick had a season-low 85 with Yarmat posting an 89.
"We knew that (the eight players from both teams) could play about the same," Arenson said.
The last time Naperville North won the conference championship -- in 2007 -- Williams missed the tournament after giving birth to her daughter, Annabelle.
"Today is my daughter's (fifth) birthday," Williams said. "Even before we started, we knew it was going to be close (team-wise with WW South). I think our depth came through today. We can count on any of our girls to score."
Renee Solberg, the Tigers' three-time state qualifier, was a shot off medalist honors for the second straight year.
"You're always going to say, 'What if I didn't lip out that one putt or throw away that one shot there,'" Solberg said of the team race after pacing WW South with a 75. "You can't beat yourself up over that. We all had high expectations (as a team) coming into the day."
Kelly Anderson fired a 78 for WW South, with Camille Granberry posting an 84 for the Tigers' third score; Skylar Brooks' 91 was the Tigers' final contribution.
Hanna Netisingha became the first individual conference champion in West Chicago history; the junior had a birdie on her outward nine to frame a front-side 37 and all but one par on her inward nine for another 37.
The resulting 74 denied Pierson and Solberg individual league supremacy.
"Absolutely not," Netisingha said when asked if she thought she could win the tournament. "I just thought to myself to play my game and not worry about what anyone else was shooting. This is a big confidence-booster (for the postseason)."
West Chicago was fourth with a collective 357, denying Wheaton North by one in the process.
Meagan Werner had an 82 to lead the Falcons.
Bridget Everson, Avleen Bhandal and Jana Payne achieved similar distinctions for Glenbard North (384), Naperville Central (385) and Glenbard East (404), respectively.
West Aurora, meanwhile, had two goals in mind: protect its third-place regular-season status at the very least and also as an intelligence-gathering operation.
The Blackhawks were successful in both regards as Kara Smith, seventh overall with an 83, led four consistent performances in their season-low effort of 351.
West Aurora will also host a Class AA regional at the same venue a week from today.
"It's just a warm-up round," junior Jordan Lange quipped. "(We are going to come back) next week and kill it."
Smith made a pair of birdies in her outward nine to make the turn at 40; the senior had a promising start on the back, only to fail to par any of her final five holes.
But she nearly made the shot of the tournament when her bid to save par--from a greenside bunker on the par-5 15th -- hit the hole in cruising five feet past the pin.
"I really wanted it to go in," Smith said. "I was proud of myself for staying focused. I didn't overreact after a bad shot, either. I am very excited about (the regional) next week."
Smith guaranteed herself an all-conference distinction with her top-10 finish.
Long-hitting Kayla Vicory posted the Blackhawks' second-lowest round with an 87, while sophomore MacKenzie Fabrizius was one behind her senior teammate for the third team score.
Lange finished with a 93.
The West Aurora team total was 40 strokes lower as a unit than when the season began in August.
"We came into the season shooting in the low 390s," West Aurora coach Chris Soulsby said. "We were hoping to be in the low 360s by this time of the season. We exceeded what our goal was at the beginning of the season. This is by far the best team I have ever had (in five years)."