By Nate Thompson
SPRING LAKE – George Bitner has never had to question his team’s dedication to the sport of golf.
A recent example of that undying devotion was on full display during the recent Division 3 regional tournament at Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada. Thick rolls of fog delayed the start of action, so there was a mad rush for players to get some extra work on the practice green.
After 30 minutes, when officials informed the field of competitors that the delay was extended, most of the golfers vacated the green to go relax.
“I look out there, and there’s five girls still out there,” Bitner recalled. “And they were all from Spring Lake. I tell you what, I was so proud seeing that. That tells you a lot about what these girls are all about.”
What they’re about is winning.
With four of five of their starting lineup returning from last season’s first-ever state title team, the expectation is that Spring Lake should be favored to go back-to-back.
The Division 3 state finals begin on Friday at Forest Akers West Golf Course at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
“This year, there’s been really high expectations, and personally, I’m excited because our team has been playing really well,” said Anna Kramer, the Lakers’ top player. “We did it last year, so it’s nice to have that little extra comfort coming in.”
Mona Shores will compete as a team in the Division 2 state finals this weekend while Reeths-Puffer’s Karina VanDuinen and Karlee Hallberg will compete individually.
North Muskegon will compete in the Division 4 finals after winning its regional last weekend.
As defending Division 3 state champions, Spring Lake has carried a bulls-eye on its back all season, and the Lakers have passed every test that’s come their way.
They won their 11th straight Lakes 8 Conference championship in dominating fashion.
“Our JVs probably could have finished in second place,” Bitner admitted.
They won every dual meet and invitational they competed in this fall, with every one of their starting five recording a season average of 43 or better.
They rolled to a Division 3 regional title at Egypt Valley, besting runner-up Forest Hills Eastern by a whopping 43 strokes.
There’s not much Bitner, 78, hasn’t seen in his remarkable coaching career at Spring Lake, considering he’s coached the Lakers’ boys golf team for 47 years and the girls program since its inception in 1980 — another 35 years.
But he’s admitted that this Lakers’ girls squad may indeed be the best he’s coached, and Kramer – a junior and a Division I recruit – is the best individual he’s been around.
“They focus exceptionally well,” Bitner said of his players. “They’re very dedicated to the game; they’re ‘practice-holics.’ And they’re good friends, which I think is important. They really pull for each other.”
Kramer finished second individually at the state finals a year ago as a sophomore, and a full offseason of tournament play and instruction has improved her skill set considerably. She’s tallied a season average of 38.31.
“She’s extremely focused out there,” Bitner said. “You rarely see her smile, which concerns me sometimes. But she tells me that she’s been trying to talk to the other girls once in awhile. But that’s just her. She’s so focused out there.”
Bitner said he saw her coming out to the course at Spring Lake Country Club as a sixth- and seventh-grader, and didn’t forget her skills. It helped that Kramer came from a golf-loving family and she started swinging the clubs as a 5 year-old.
Her older brother, Ben Kramer – who Bitner also coached at Spring Lake – is a freshman on the Hope College men’s golf team.
Kramer’s already been assured that she potentially has a bright future in the sport. Her and Ben traveled last winter for three days of instruction in Mesa, Ariz., with one of the world’s best golf instructors, Mike Malaska.
“He said that Anna was off the charts,” Bitner said. “He told her that you can go to any school you want to (to play golf).”
Kramer isn’t the lone Laker with college aspirations in the sport. Hope College women’s golf coach Greg Stafford told Bitner that No. 2 golfer Kayla Krueger could have been the No. 5 golfer on his squad this year. Krueger carries a season average of 40.39.
Maybe the golfer who is the most athletic and has the most potential in the sport is sophomore Madelyn Nelson, who was actually the Lakers’ medalist at Saturday’s regional with a 77 — her best round of the year. Nelson was also a standout of the Spring Lake varsity softball team last spring.
Senior Emma Conroy will be the Lakers’ No. 4 golfer at the finals, while No. 5 is up for grabs. Bitner said he’ll have a challenge match between sophomore Jaelyn Shelton and freshman Hannah Klein.
While Bitner is confident in his group’s chances — they enter the finals with the best regional score in Division 3 — the coaching side of him keeps him cautiously optimistic.
“We have to step it up a little,” he said.
One thing is for sure, with Bitner admitting he likely will only coach “a couple more years,” his players want to reward him with another state title.
“I don’t think he cried last year,” Kramer said. “He just had a big smile on his face. He was really proud of us.
“He loves us and loves the sport,” she added. “He’s really funny and he always wants the best out of us. That’s why we love playing for him.”