Coming off a season in which three of the top girls golf players graduated from Lemon Bay High School, coach Darrell Roach was unsure what to expect in 2018.

He certainly didn’t expect to see his team contending with top teams in the area and posting scores in the high 30’s and low 40’s across the board.

However, an 11-3 start to the season has Roach thinking differently about his team.

“Losing the three seniors, I thought, ‘Well to qualify for states, you have to have a top two team in your region or have the top two individuals not on those teams.’ So I was hoping that Meadow (Southworth) and Hailey Lainhart could make it to states, because our team just isn’t deep enough,” he said.

However, after a second place finish at the Bishop Verot Invitational, Roach is thinking differently. The Lady Mantas finished ahead of Naples, who went to states last season, and now Roach is eyeing a deep run into the postseason.

“I had no inkling this would be a possibility at all,” he said.

Meadow and Hailey have led the charge for Lemon Bay as the No. 1 and No. 2 players, respectively. It isn’t rare for each player to shoot just a few strokes over par.

Southworth, a senior, has her eye set on playing collegiate golf, and the way she handles herself around the team is a reflection of that goal.

“She’s as dedicated and serious about it as any of them,” Roach said of Southworth. “She’s hoping to play college golf. She’s taking private lessons all the time, she’s playing in tournaments. She’s really focused at our practices, where some of the girls are more social. She’s the one who leads by example.”

For Roach, the biggest difference in reality and expectation has been the depth of his team. Though he knew he could count on Southworth and Lainhart, it’s the improvement of the rest of the team that has his hopes high.

Rounding out the top six players for Lemon Bay are Christain Chandler, Alicia Pappalardo, Lauren Ragaazone and Malori Onken.

Specifically, the consistently improved play of Pappalardo and Ragazzone have made much of the difference for the Lady Mantas.

“It’s awesome having all these good players on our team, because now we really do have a good shot at going to states,” Lainhart said. “We were so close last year, I want to say we only missed out by four strokes. So this year, we’re really excited to see if we can get those strokes back and make it to states.”

While the Lemon Bay girls golf team is off to an unexpected start, Roach, who’s coached the team for over 20 years, credits his fun-loving approach to coaching as to why he’s had so much success with the Lady Mantas.

He tries to make games out of practice routines and often has rewards like Little Debbie cakes for the girls for reaching certain goals such as using less than 14 putts on a nine-hole round.

“I just try to keep it fun,” he said. “I’ve seen other programs where it’s drudgery for them. Where they can’t leave until they sink a certain amount of putts.

“We play games, and I give out cookies. That’s the real secret. You make a birdie, you get a Little Debbie. We have a putting contest, the winner gets a cookie. All of a sudden, the concentration really comes on.”

And while Roach’s approach to coaching is certainly paying off for Lemon Bay on the golf course, it’s also having its affects on the girls’ attitudes toward the game as well.

When it comes to players like Pappalardo, the success on the course is nice, but the bond among teammates is something she’s cherished perhaps more.

“I have him as my TV production teacher, too, and it’s always fun,” she said. “He always jokes around with us. He seems like he’s really serious, but he’s a softy on the inside.

“It’s been a really nice year because we have such a strong team. But it’s really not about that. Everyone is so nice to each other and we all get along. It’s just nice to have a good bond and friendship with everyone.”

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