In her final chance, Highland’s Rece Portell wanted to win the individual golf championship for herself while also reclaiming the Lady Bulldogs’ team dominance in the conference.
There was also a little extra motivation for the senior as it was the 20th and final Mississippi Valley Conference golf tournament for coach Gina Hirsch, who is retiring at the end of the year.
Portell delivered big time as she fired her career-best round of 6-over-par 78 to be crowned the MVC’s individual champion by three shots over Jerseyville’s Hannah Taylor (81) Wednesday, Sept. 27 at Belk Park Golf Course in Wood River. The match medalist also led the Lady Bulldogs to the team title with a final team score of 366. That was five shots better than runner-up Civic Memorial’s 371.
Rounding out the team scores were Jerseyville (389), Mascoutah (394), Triad (421) and Waterloo (436).
Highland ended a two-year hiatus as the conference champions after last winning it in 2014.
“It means a ton especially because it’s Hirsch’s last year too,” Portell said. “I know she’s really excited to end it like that.. She’s a really nice person and has always been there for us and it’s nice to be able to give back to her.
“My goal was to win conference this year but I had to keep myself calm and focused in order to do that.”
Hirsch admitted that she was overcome with emotion after collecting the program’s 15th MVC crown in her 20 years at the helm.
“I had tears of joy after this title,” she said. “They will forever be in my hearts as my last conference champion team. We played with such poise and grit today. I can’t wait to see how well we can do at regionals. I like my chances with this team. They are a really special group of kids.
“When I graduated college, and I played college tennis, my goal was to give back. I had been given a lot from coaches and I felt like it was time to give back to the kids. I hope I have given a lot back to the kids over the years.”
Portell admitted that she had struggled for a couple of weeks but said she feels confident and believes she is peaking at the right time of the season. The postseason is up next, beginning on Wednesday, Oct. 4 at the IHSA Class 1A Teutopolis Regional which will be held at the Effingham Country Club.
Portell said while she shot her best round, there is no way the team brings home a plaque without everybody managing to score well enough.
“That’s what I like about golf, that while there’s the individual aspect you also get the team part too,” she said. “I’m super excited for regionals, especially for our team. I think we can surprise a lot of people. It’s the small moments, like cherishing an accomplishment with your team, that I’m going to miss most about high school sports.”
Portell converted an eagle on the very difficult 16th hole. She hit an incredible drive and was only 140 yards from the pin. She was going to lay up but assistant coach Gary Bargetzi told her to go for it. She did and struck a phenomenal approach shot to the green, where she one-putted for the team’s first eagle of the season.
The back nine holes at Belk Park are the most difficult of the two sides and Portell went 1-over par on that side.
“She was in some zone today,” Hirsch said. “She shot 41 on the front and just continued to get more confident with each shot. On the toughest three holes, she went par, par, eagle. I was so happy that Rece could end the regular season being the conference medalist and a conference champion. What a truly great round. And for Rece this is a personal best.”
Senior Gabi Berolatti also earned all-conference honors, who shot good round of 90 to tie for fourth place.
“Gabi is such a long ball hitter that this course really is set up for her,” Hirsch said. “Her iron shots were really good today. Her main struggles were with her putter. Gabi hits the ball so long sometimes you just have to watch the beauty in the shot. I am amazed that she has only been golfing for two years. Coach Bargetzi has been doing a little tweaking and she was driving the ball at least 230 yards. She just has a natural swing and Gabi is only getting stronger with each match.”
Junior Audrey Wilke struggled with her tee shots but still shot a 93, which was good enough for ninth place.
(Wilke) is another really long ball hitter and she was spraying her tee shots a little which gets you into trouble,” Hirsch said. “On 16, her drive went right and she left her punch shot a little short so she had to hit another punch shot. I talked to her a little and told her she has one of the best approach shots I have ever seen. She just needed a little confidence and sure enough she stuck about a 110-yard shot about 8 feet from the pin. She too has really only been playing competitive golf for two years. She also has come so far and really is also a natural on the course.”
Junior Geena Budwell rounded out Highland’s team score with a 105.
“Geena Budwell missed another personal best by one stroke,” Hirsch. “She really played well. I got to watch her hit some pretty good approach shots and her drivers were overall pretty good. I am so pleased with the way she played. She had more pars today than previous outings.”
Playing but not scoring for the Bulldogs were freshman Claire Korte (106) and junior Kennedy Klucker (112).
“I was also happy with the play of Claire Korte and Kennedy Klucker,” Hirsch said. “Claire hit a drive on a par 4 to about 30 yards from the green. I tweaked a little backswing issue and she threaded it through the trees to come up that close. She was playing a slice and she hit it dead straight. It split the middle through two trees and then stayed low under a branch. I couldn’t believe how far it went.
“Kennedy had a tremendous day with drives and her chipping is really getting a lot better. She and her putter need to become a little closer so hopefully we can tweak it just a little to get those scores below 100.”