By Andrew Johnson

MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – It’s safe to say that the Reeths-Puffer girls golf team is the favorite to win its third straight Greater Muskegon Athletic Association City Golf Tournament on Wednesday at Stonegate.

The reason the Rockets are a heavy favorite is because they finished third in the state in 2017, and have two returning seniors who finished in the top 10 individually at the Division 2 finals last year.

Reeths-Puffer’s Karina VanDuinen talks with Coach Chris Carter during 2017’s GMAA city tournament. Photo/Jason Goorman

One is Karina VanDuinen, who was an individual state champion as a freshman in 2015, and a city champion in 2015 and 2016.

“It would mean a lot,” said VanDuinen about the possibility of winning another city title in her senior season. “It’s one of the last things that I’d be able to take home. But I haven’t put any pressure on myself this season. I’m just going out and trying to have fun.”

Another senior who has had lots of success, but is aiming for her first city title, is Avery Howard.

Howard finished runner-up at city in 2016 and 2017.

“I’m hoping to win the tournament,” said Howard. who finished in the top 10 of the Division 2 state finals in each of the last two seasons. “I’ve finished runner-up the last two years and I’m hoping to get one win in. It’d be really special because I’ve played Stonegate a lot and I’ve been working hard to get it. It’d mean so much to see my hard work pay off.

“It hasn’t been that frustrating because I’ve been runner-up (at the city meet) to teammates,” said Howard, who finished behind VanDuinen in 2016 and since-graduated Karlee Hallberg in 2017.

While the competition will be stiff for the individual title, Howard says she and her teammates want another team title more than anything.

“It’s really great knowing that we have such an amazing team,” said Howard, who is averaging a score of 79.41 this season. “We’ve all put in the work and can compete so well. We don’t really think of the pressure. We prepare ourselves and just know we have to play our best.”

Avery Howard takes a chip shot just off the 10th green during last season’s GMAA golf tourney. Photo/Jason Goorman

Playing her best wasn’t always something VanDuinen was able to do at the beginning of last season, when she struggled a bit.

“It was pretty frustrating,” said VanDuinen. who is averaging a score of 75.65 this season. “Probably one of the most frustrating things I’ve gone through. But I’m glad I went through it because it made me a better golfer.’

While VanDuinen’s season didn’t start the way she wanted last season, she wrapped things up on a high note by finishing third at the Division 2 finals.

“It just came with time,” said VanDuinen. who has committed to continue her golf career at Ferris State University next year. “It was a lot of time and practice. It was just something that I knew I had to push through. I knew it wasn’t going to last forever, so I had to stay positive as much as I could.”

Last season’s strong finish has carried over for VanDuinen, who took first place at an invitational at Grand Valley’s Meadows Golf Course earlier this year with a score of 69.

“She’s playing really good,” said Rocket coach Chris Carter about VanDuinen. “She’s playing fantastic. A few of the girls have bounced around. but by far she’s our best player this year.”

While VanDuinen and Howard are leading the Rockets, they also have another player shooting in the 70’s, which just happens to be Korina’s sister, freshman Karli VanDuinen.

“I love it,” said Korina VanDuinen about playing with Korina, who’s averaging a 78.59 this year. “My sister is my best friend. We have a lot of fun together. It’s fun to have someone out there who you’re super close with. It’s really special that I get to have a year with her.”