canada africa partner reservation Next Jennifer Kupcho? These 4 Colorado high school girls golfers have pro potential

Next Jennifer Kupcho? These 4 Colorado high school girls golfers have pro potential

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From Babe Didrikson Zaharias to Jennifer Kupcho, cold-weather Colorado’s produced some elite women’s golfers.

Now, the next household names might already be in the pipeline via four local high schoolers with professional potential.

Erie junior Hadley Ashton may be at the top, but her skill is paralleled by a trio of reigning state champions. Ashton’s teammate, senior Logan Hale, is the defending Class 4A champion, while St. Mary’s Academy senior Maddy Bante (two-time defending Class 3A champion) and Valor Christian junior Brenna Higgins (defending Class 5A champion) round out Colorado’s elite quartet.

“With all four of those players, they’re all showing us they’re going to play at a high level in Division I,” explained Matt Schalk, the GM at Colorado National Golf Club and an ardent supporter of local junior girls golf. “And from there, they’ll get a chance to write their own stories as they get into college and even afterward as possible pros.

“They’re all very special players and none of them has reached their full potential yet. But they all have the skills to take it to the next level after college if they choose.”

Ashton is headed to play at Wisconsin, Hale is committed to the University of Denver, Bante is going to Notre Dame and Higgins remains uncommitted, although she has offers from Montana and Wyoming with a scholarship from CU likely soon on the way.

The quartet played together at the Girls Junior Americas Cup last summer in British Columbia, where they bonded en route to a fourth-place finish out of 18 states.

“It’s awesome that each of us is representing Colorado so well on different stages,” Ashton said. “I think we all have a mutual respect and admiration for each other, and what each other’s game can do.”

Ashton’s national prowess

Erie's Hadley Ashton watches her shot on hole 9 at Lake Valley Golf Club during the Erie Cocoa Classic on April 8, 2024. (Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)
Erie’s Hadley Ashton watches her shot on hole 9 at Lake Valley Golf Club during the Erie Cocoa Classic on April 8, 2024. (Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)

Ashton, the most accomplished golfer of the four, is 109th in the latest American Junior Golf Association rankings.

The CHSAA Class 4A state champion as a freshman, Ashton’s performed well on the national scene. She placed second in four AJGA tournaments and won two of them, with her most notable victory coming at the Hale Irwin Colorado Junior in 2022.

It was that summer when Ashton pondered quitting golf, as her rising profile began to burden her.

“It was not fun for me on the course, and I was kind of dreading going to tournaments,” recalled Ashton, who’s played since she was six. “That’s when I started working hard with my mental coach, and I had to get back to thinking why I started playing the game and why I love it. That was my biggest struggle: falling out of love with the sport, and letting all that pressure and expectations take over me, and having to get back in it and almost start from scratch again mentally.”

Now, after working through those struggles, Ashton said she’s in a much better place.

The result’s been continued consistency for a player who, at 16, is a year young for her grade. There are still strides to be made in her driving length and club head speed, but Schalk says Ashton possesses “a complete game that sets her apart.”

“She’s not going to it hit it further than everybody, but she’s super skilled in everything,” said Schalk, who coaches both Ashton and Higgins. “She can putt, has terrific short game, is a very good iron and wedge player, and her mental game is really strong as well as her course management. Her eye test is not going to wow you — but she’s persistent and fights and avoids blow-up rounds.”

This weekend, Ashton is playing in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball in San Antonio. It will be her fourth USGA championship event, and her playing partner in the best-ball format is Hale. The tournament runs through Wednesday, and if Ashton and Hale make the Round of 16 on Tuesday, that means they’d miss Erie’s regional tournament that takes place on the same day.

Hale would qualify for an exemption into the CHSAA state tournament because she’s in the top six in the regular season rankings and has played in at least six CHSAA tournaments. But Ashton would not qualify for that exemption because she hasn’t played in enough CHSAA tournaments this spring.

“To get to the top 16 and for us to have the potential to win it — I think that’s a bigger opportunity than high school golf,” Ashton said.

Erie’s other ace

ERIE, CO - FEBRUARY 28:Erie's Logan Hale poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)
Erie’s Logan Hale poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

While Ashton’s been in the limelight longer, it was Hale who won last year’s Class 4A title by eight strokes.

Hale acknowledged that it can be difficult “to manage those emotions as friends sometimes, but I feel like we’ve done a good job separating who we are as people and as friends, from the sport that we happen to play at a high level against each other.”

“We root for each other always,” Hale said.

Hale is a long hitter, who averages about 280 yards on her drives, and an aggressive player with her decision-making on the course. Her rise has been fast. Prior to high school, her main focus was competitive ski racing.

At the time she gave up her winter sport in eighth grade in favor of golf, Hale — the daughter of John Hale, the former head coach of the U.S. Ski Team — was ranked in the top three in the nation in the giant slalom in the U14 age group.

“People thought I was crazy, but I knew what I wanted to do,” Hale said. “It was a shock to a lot of people, and a lot of people asked,  ‘Well what does your dad think?’ But my dad never really pushed me into anything. I found my own passion for ski racing and the same thing for golf.”

Hale quickly proved she knew what she was doing with a club in her hand.

In her first CHSAA tournament as a freshman competing for Vail Mountain School, she carded a 68 at Eagle Ranch to break the course’s women’s record. Her family then moved to Erie, where as a sophomore she finished tied for seventh at state, nine strokes behind Ashton, as the Tigers won the first of two straight team titles.

“When I was in middle school, I spent a lot of winters down in my basement with a golf set-up we had there, hitting balls, looking at my numbers, taking videos,” Hale said. “Then I started having success on the course early in high school, which some saw as out of the blue. But I had already put a bunch of work in behind the scenes.”

From moguls to birdies

Valor Christian's Brenna Higgins, 17, poses for a portrait at The Ridge at Castle Pines North in Castle Pines, Colorado on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)
Valor Christian’s Brenna Higgins, 17, poses for a portrait at The Ridge at Castle Pines North in Castle Pines, Colorado on Wednesday, May 8, 2024. (Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Over at Valor Christian, another skier-turned-golfer ascended to the top of the prep ranks.

Like Hale, Valor Christian’s Higgins — who claimed the Class 5A title in a playoff victory over Smoky Hill’s Sophia Stiwich last year — only turned her full attention to golf in high school. Prior to that, she was part of the ski team at Winter Park, where she was an accomplished competitive mogul skier.

Unlike Hale, who played competitive tournaments since the age of 11 in conjunction with her skiing, Higgins only played a handful of low-profile youth tournaments prior to high school. Her first AJGA tournament was a couple of weeks ago in California.

“I don’t think it’s easy to identify a ceiling for her, because of how recently her trajectory has changed,” Valor Christian head coach Justen Byler said. “When she decided to focus specifically on golf, it accelerated her learning curve very quickly.”

Schalk describes Higgins as “a very gifted athlete who comes with a lot of power.”

“She gets it up to 98 miles per hour with her club head speed, and can even touch 100, which is high from a collegiate perspective,” Schalk said. “She hits a pitching wedge 145 yards, and just bombs the ball. But she lacked some of those early skills because she just came into the game several years ago and hadn’t played a lot of competitive golf.”

As Higgins is focused on a repeat CHSAA title and leading the Eagles to a third straight team crown, she’s formed a close bond with Ashton. This past winter, the two took several trips together to Arizona to play golf.

This spring, Higgins and her family have also been dealing with her mom’s cancer diagnosis. Kim Higgins is currently going through chemotherapy.

“That’s taught me to be grateful for everything, and to play for something greater than myself,” Higgins said. “I feel like her battle kind of frees my mind out there, takes some pressure off, and makes me see (beyond the game).”

The St. Mary’s stalwart

St. Mary's Academy golfer Maddy Bante poses for a portrait at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, CO, Saturday, May 11, 2024. Bante plans to attend the University of Notre Dame next year. (Rebecca Slezak/Special to The Denver Post)
St. Mary’s Academy golfer Maddy Bante poses for a portrait at Cherry Hills Country Club in Cherry Hills Village, CO, Saturday, May 11, 2024. Bante plans to attend the University of Notre Dame next year. (Rebecca Slezak/Special to The Denver Post)

Bante’s also gained perspective from the strength of a cancer warrior. St. Mary’s Academy coach Ann Wolta Blackstone has had recurring bouts with breast cancer over the last 30 years, with her most recent battle coming during Bante’s freshman year.

As Wolta Blackstone’s medication helped her stay cancer-free, Bante’s emerged as a force to lead the Wildcats to three straight Class 3A team titles.

“She’s a fighter, she’s determined, she knows what she wants and she’s not afraid to help others reach their goals,” Bante said of her coach. “That’s rubbed off on me and how I approach the game and my life.”

St. Mary’s Academy can become the third CHSAA girls program to four-peat, joining Mullen (five-peat from 2001-05) and Colorado Academy (2016-19). Meanwhile, Bante is the heavy favorite to claim her third individual title, a roll she’s been on since losing the title by one stroke as a freshman.

“It was definitely tough losing that way, but it also lit a fire under me going into the rest of my high school career,” Bante said. “I learned a lot about pressure, about staying within myself and not focusing on what opponents are doing.”

On the course, Bante is one of the state’s longest drivers. Off it, a key friendship and a charitable mindset have shaped her.

Like Ashton and Higgins have grown close, so too have Bante and Hale. The relationship began when the pair met at a junior tournament at 12, and has since blossomed into what Bante describes as a “soul tie.”

“In our first junior tournament together, we shot the exact same score, and we’ve had a very similar trajectory in the game ever since,” Bante said. “We always joke that we’re interconnected somehow, because we’ll consistently shoot the same score over a four-day tournament or there’s been tournaments where we show up wearing the same outfit.”

Bante’s charitable efforts earned her the prestigious USGA-AJGA Presidents’ Leadership Award in 2022, a national honor bestowed upon one male and one female golfer who exemplify leadership, character and community service.

Bante received the award for her work with Food Bank of the Rockies and First Tee-Colorado Rocky Mountains, where she worked with younger players. She also fundraised for the AJGA’s Achieving Competitive Excellence grant which provides scholarships for golfers.

“All along, I’ve wanted to show other people how I wouldn’t be where I am without my parents’ support,” Bante said. “Everything I have been able to accomplish has come with the opportunities I’ve been given, so I’ve wanted to give others the same opportunities in this sport that I had.”

The quartet’s crystal ball

Erie's Logan Hale maps out her shot on the green of hole 9 at Lake Valley Golf Club during the Erie Cocoa Classic on April 8, 2024. (Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)
Erie’s Logan Hale maps out her shot on the green of hole 9 at Lake Valley Golf Club during the Erie Cocoa Classic on April 8, 2024. (Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)

So where will this foursome be in 10 years?

The bridge between being an elite junior golfer and an LPGA player is a long one. But Schalk believes all four could get there.

“They’re not just out there treading water,” Schalk said. “They’re trying to evolve every aspect of their game.”

Erie head coach Brandon Bird echoed that sentiment, noting that Ashton, Hale, Higgins and Bante have the same mental makeup that Kupcho possessed as a two-time state champion at Jefferson Academy in 2014 and ’15.

While Ashton competed at The Nelly Invitational last weekend in Florida, Bird had a front-row seat to the other three at the first-ever Showcase Invitational on April 29 at Boulder Country Club. Higgins won the one-day tournament with an even-par 72, while Hale took second at 74 and Bante was third at 76.

“Now it’s going to be about refining their games in college to take them from great juniors players into household names, and that’s hard to do,” Bird said. “All of them will, at the very least, put the work in to put themselves in that type of position.”


Colorado high school girls golfers to watch

THORNTON: Erie's Hadley Ashton watches her shot at the Class 4A girls golf tournament at Thorncreek Golf Course, Tuesday, May 30, 2023. (Brent W. New/BoCoPreps.com)
Erie’s Hadley Ashton watches her shot at the Class 4A girls golf tournament at Thorncreek Golf Course, Tuesday, May 30, 2023. (Brent W. New/BoCoPreps.com)

After this week’s regionals, the CHSAA girls golf state tournament is May 20-21 at three courses along the I-25 corridor.

Class 5A

at The Broadlands in Broomfield

Brenna Higgins, Valor Christian
Addison Hines, Ralston Valley
Ashleigh Wilson, Rock Canyon
Maddie Makino, Legend
Caitlyn Chin, Cherry Creek
Brooke Hudson, Chaparral

Class 4A

at Country Club of Colorado in Colorado Springs

Logan Hale, Erie
Hadley Ashton, Erie
Macy Kleve, Windsor
Brynn Balliet, Riverdale Ridge
Sophia Capua, Vista PEAK
Sofia Contreras, Pueblo Central

Class 3A

at The Olde Course in Loveland

Maddy Bante, St. Mary’s Academy
Kyndra Johnson, Salida
Hope Torres, Prospect Ridge Academy
Addie Dorsey, Manitou Springs
Lena Persson, Aspen
Brooklyn Tychsen, Berthoud