As the first Brown County golfer to reach the IHSAA Girls Golf State tournament, senior Emma Bawinkel blazed a path for her team to follow this year.

Rain delays at the Indianapolis tournament Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 could not cast a shadow over the progress she and her fellow Eagles have made this season.

Even though she finished with a 177 over 36 holes, several several points higher than her average for the season, Bawinkel still is playing better than she did a year ago. Going into the tournament, she had a nine-hole average of 39 and an 18-hole average of 81. After the state tournament, with her averages pushed to 41 and 84, she still remains ahead of last year’s 45.6 and 93.

Along with sophomore Ashley Masteller, Bawinkel shares the distinction of being one of only three Brown County golfers to ever make it to the girls golf regional.

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The pair are the first to reach that level since Cathy Harbin, who progressed as an individual in 1979, before Brown County had a women’s golf program.

“I really felt like it was just a great experience and it was really awesome, and I’m really glad that I got to go with Emma,” Masteller said.

Head Coach Brad Baughman is proud to have such progress in a program only in its fifth year. The program’s first four-year team member — senior Tori Akles — is graduating this year.

He is also pleased to move into next season with a solid core of seniors, noting the progress that juniors Lauren Burker, Jessica Taylor, Meghan Cassiday and Kacee Kleindorfer have made this year. Though all four hovered around 60 points for nine holes throughout most of last year, they all showed steady progress this season, with Taylor carding 46 twice.

There’s also talent in the wings with freshman Meg Smith, whose natural ability Bawinkel said she has been encouraging.

Bawinkle cites the encouragement of her father, Dan Bawinkel, as a major factor in her development as an athlete. She understands the importance of nurturing talent, she said.

Has Bawinkel ever thought about coaching?

“You know, I actually have, so many times,” she said.

She can see herself in shoes like Baughman’s, she said. Or — just maybe — coaching for a college team.

Regardless the path, golf will always play a central role in her life, Bawinkel said. She chose to pursue the sport in part because it was something she loved and saw she could do well in when she took it up less than three years ago.

Whether it’s music — she plays guitar and piano and sings — or other sports, Bawinkel said she puts her all into anything she pursues. She spent years honing her skills as a speed skater and had coaches encourage her to try out for basketball after they saw her shooting hoops for exercise.

She is often told she has natural talent, yet when she talks about refining her abilities, the ocean of work beneath is revealed.

“When I find something I really like to do, I do it to my fullest,” Bawinkel said. “You’ve gotta have a good work ethic, because without a good work ethic, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Over the past year, there were few days Bawinkel wasn’t working on her golf game. Though she took some breaks, most weeks she was practicing every day.

She likes to “play little games,” she said, such as hitting 10 balls onto the green, writing down her percentage, and calculating how to improve in that one area of her overall game.

“What I’ve learned from golf and what I’ve learned from speed skating is that there is a technique to everything, and when you learn the technique, you’re obviously going to be better,” she said.

Bawinkel’s mixture of public and home schooling misses some technical qualifications for entering an NCAA Division 1 school right away, she said. So, she plans to study for a year at Ivy Tech while continuing to play tournaments and improve as a golfer.

After a year at Ivy Tech, she plans to enter one of the nation’s 25 NCAA Division 1 schools that offer a professional golf management degree, she said.

“I’m looking into a scholarship, definitely, after Ivy Tech, because I think I can get it,” she said.

Her passion for the sport is shared by Masteller, who said she has considered options from pursuing a pro career to designing golf courses. She is already looking for scholarships.

“I just want to incorporate golf into the rest of my life,” Masteller said.

Bawinkel’s absence will clearly leave a hole, both for the team and personally, Masteller said.

“It’s going to be hard without her, but I think we’ll be looking forward,” she said. “Since we know what winning tastes like, I think we’ll want to strive to do that.”

The pair have been leaders by example, Baughman said. He encourages his players to realize they are not simply girls on the golf team, but to think and act as golfers.

From performance to simply understanding the jargon and nuance of the game, Baughman said he has seen the team transform in the last year.

He credits the example set by Masteller and Bawinkel with much of that.

The pair have no shortage of praise to heap on each other. Though two years apart in school, their friendship and love of the game have kept them on the same page out on the course.

Masteller is also hoping that what they have started doesn’t end with them, she said.

Masteller has been disappointed in the past to see how few girls show up for the annual summer golf camp at Salt Creek Golf course.

She would like to see more girls take up the sport, and hopes she and Bawinkel have given an example that will inspire them.

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.