O’Neal wins third straight golf state championship

The O’Neal School’s varsity girls golf team celebrated winning the NCISAA Division II State Championship on Tuesday. It is the third straight year O’Neal has won the event. This year’s tournament was played at Keith Hills Golf Course in Lillington. The Lady Falcons also placed a record five individual golfers onto the 2023 NCISAA All-State team.

The 2023 NCISAA state tournament returned to a two-day event for the first time since 2019. While O’Neal enjoyed remarkable success, the course was set up at over 6,000 yards and played with difficulty on the first day. The Falcons opened up with a 26-shot team lead over Forsyth Country Day School after the first day.

Sophomores Rachel Joyce and Sofi Afable led the way for the Falcons with rounds of 78 and 81, respectively. Joyce ranked in second place and Afable sixth. Seniors Lauren Kuhn and Audrey Kim kept touching distance of the leaders, with rounds of 85 and lay in a tie for ninth.

Another highlight on the afternoon came from seventh grader Natalia Henderson, who shot 85 and kept pace with the top 10 in 13th place.  

Head coach John Casson shared, “For four of our players to be in the top 10 individually after Day One, was a testament to how we have played all year. The course was ever so difficult on the 1st day, and despite shooting higher scores than we are used to, we hung around and were well placed.”

The NCISAA set up a little friendlier golf course on the second day, which saw scores drop. O’Neal’s girls continued their collective team push for the championship. They finished with a team score of +48, beating Forsyth Country Day School (+111) into second place and Asheville Christian School (+120) into third.

O’Neal’s girls enjoyed five players in the top 10 of the state tournament. Rachel Joyce earned fourth place; Sofi Afable was fifth. Co-captains Lauren Kuhn and Audrey Kim signed off their O’Neal careers, tying for sixth place, and Natalia Henderson completed her first season with an eighth-place finish.

As individuals, the same five girls (Rachel Joyce, Sofi Afable, Lauren Kuhn, Audrey Kim, and Natalia Henderson) were also honored by making the season’s All-State team. This is earned through 50 percent of the girls’ season scores and 50 percent from the two rounds at the state tournament. Also qualifying for the state tournament this year from O’Neal were juniors Kayleigh Goins and Fiona Surber and eighth graders Livi Afable and Charlotte Schroen.

Coach Casson reveled in the team’s season and accomplishments. “This was a team effort. Nine of our student-athletes qualified for the State Tournament as individuals. We had five students selected to the All-State team (for their season and championship efforts). That is really impressive. The results speak for themselves. What you don’t see is the hard work these girls put into their preparation weekly. It’s not always easy, and yet, with committed individuals and strong senior leadership, it is no accident we enjoyed such success.”

Athletic director James Franklin shared his pride in the team’s results, too. Franklin added, “This team works when no one is watching them. They always find a way to be competitive and play with continual grit and determination. It’s this work ethic and drive that has led to strong showings in the state championship and all season long.”

Girls golf began as a competitive team at O’Neal six years ago. The team has won four state championships and has come in second place once. With eight returning student-athletes expected to play on the 2024 team, the Falcons will look to continue their strong record. Next year, O’Neal will look to secure a fifth overall state championship and fourth consecutive win.

O’Neal is a part of the Sandhills Athletic Conference (SAC) and is the recipient of the 2022-2023 Wells Fargo Cup, recognizing O’Neal for having the top athletics program among Division 2 independent schools.

Feature photo: (L-R) Coach John Casson, Natalia Henderson, Lauren Kuhn, Kayleigh Goins, Sofi Afable, Rachel Joyce, Fiona Surber, Audrey Kim, Charlotte Schroen, Livi Afable, Coach Killian Casson.

Contributed/Courtesy photo.

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