Brooke Riley stood shoulder to shoulder with a teammate, both staring down the third fairway at Manteca Park Golf Course.
She raised her driver and used it to point at a landmark, giving fellow East Union junior Rebecca Leonard a target to aim at.
Riley, far and away the Manteca area’s top returning golfer, has an expanded role in 2014. With four of the six starters no longer around, the soft-spoken ace is now leader and player-coach for a team that is nearly starting from scratch.
“That’s the good thing about Brooke and probably the most important thing,” East Union co-head coach Brian Goulart said. “We have no worries about how she plays; we all know she’s great. But people in her position do one of two things: They’ll either decide to stick it out and help their high school team get better, or just drop the high school thing altogether and go play tournaments year-round.
“She could go play tournaments instead because she’s that good, but she is very unselfish.”
Riley and Leonard are the lone returners from the 2013 Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship squad. The Lancers have claimed at least a piece of the last seven VOL titles, and the SJS banner is the program’s seventh.
Their reign is in danger of ending.
Breanna Perkins, Brittany Ugalino and Jordan Vinson backed up Riley’s impressive play with experience and consistency. All three earned All-VOL first-team honors as seniors. Replacing them is a group of freshmen with little to no competitive experience.
That means no seniors this season. Yes, they are young. Or as Goulart put it, “We’re super young.”
While both he and fellow coach Dennis Wells realize the program is rebuilding they do have one thing going for them — Riley.
Riley is the two-time VOL Most Valuable Player and Manteca Bulletin All-Area Golfer of the Year. Last season she became the first Lady Lancer to qualify for the CIF State Championships. Leonard showed some promise with a strong finish to the 2013 campaign, carding an 89 in the SJS Masters Tournament while helping the team qualify for the Northern California Regional.
“We’re expecting her to play extremely well and be that strong No. 2 for us,” Goulart said of Leonard. “For us to win we need Brooke to go low and Rebecca to be consistent.”
Chloe Cardenas and Natalie Cowan are the most experienced of the freshmen. Goulart said both are members at Spring Creek Golf & Country Club in Ripon and “come from families of golfers.”
Three underclassmen are vying for the final two spots in the starting lineup. Sisters Trish and Allie Tajii are both accomplished softball players giving golf a try. Trish is a sophomore while Allie is a freshman. The coaches like the upside of Michaela Pangburn despite her inexperience.
“These girls are going to have to grow up a little faster than they would like to for us to compete,” Goulart said.
Other storylines to follow:
u Goulart pegs crosstown rival Sierra to be among the chief challengers to East Union’s crown. The Timberwolves return everyone but their top player, Lexus Barnes, from last season’s VOL runner-up. They broke a four-year postseason drought and appear prime to make it back to the SJS Division IV Tournament. Legacy Barnes, McKenna Doyle, Arlena Gavino, Krystal Rayevich, Vanessa Rodriguez and Kayla Wilson make up the team’s likely starting six, and each gained ample experience in 2013.
u Katie Hankins quietly had a strong season for Manteca. She finished the SJS Division IV Tournament with a 93 at Diablo Grande’s Legends Course after gaining All-VOL first-team status in the week prior. The Buffaloes return the bulk of their starters and could make a push for one of the VOL’s top three spots.
u The VOL just got a little tougher thanks to realignment. The league welcomes Modesto-based Central Catholic, which boasts a tradition of golf excellence. The Raiders come from the Western Athletic Conference and haven’t dropped a regular-season match since 2006. They did lose five starters to graduation after leading the team to a third-place finish in the SJS Division IV tourney.
u In the Valley Foothill League North Division, Ripon looks to build on its surprise 2013 finish that yielded a section championship in Division V. The Indians will have to move on without Sienna Starck, the reigning conference MVP who now plays for Cal State East Bay. Haley Rae Rose is another big graduation loss. Coach Eric Dambrosio will look to senior Erin Wever to lead the way for junior Alyssa Demera and sophomores Alex Gonzales and Claire Wever.