Todd Allen knew two years ago.
He understood that if the top players on Sandburg’s girls’ golf team kept improving, his 2014 squad would stand a good chance of making the 12-team Class AA championship field at season’s end.
A group including Frankie Saban and Emily Cosler indeed continued to get better, but there was one thing about which Allen erred: With junior Saban and sophomore Cosler leading the way, the Eagles made the state finals last fall.
“It’s a big deal down there,” Allen said. “Only 12 teams from the whole state go down, [so] it was an honor for us. I was proud of the girls for what they did.”
Sandburg placed 11th at state, with Saban its highest individual finisher in the 54th position. Cosler deadlocked for 67th and freshman Emily McGiles tied for 96th.
With everyone back the experience gained in 2013 could prove vital this year.
Already Sandburg is standing out. The Eagles romped over Andrew in their opening match of the season, scoring a massive 79-stroke victory on the back nine of Silver Lake Country Club’s North course. Then on Saturday they captured the Joliet Invitational at Woodruff Golf Course, Cosler leading Sandburg to a team victory by winning the individual title with a 7-over-par 75.
Saban, who has verbally committed to Bradley University, and Cosler, a junior getting her share of attention from college coaches, continue to be the leaders, but the Eagles are not merely a two-girl show. McGiles, junior Erin Cronin and senior Patty Meza are some others expected to play big roles.
“We’ve still got to get some other scorers,” Allen said. “You need [decent] 4-5-6 scores if you want to be competitive. Hopefully we’ll continue to improve — our goal is to go downstate again.”
Team scoring in high school golf is taken from a squad’s four lowest individual rounds. A fifth golfer’s score is used as a tiebreaker. A state-qualifying team can play six players a day and change the roster for the second day.
Last year at state Allen used seven players, with Reilly Scanlon and Alex Kappel each playing one round at Hickory Point Golf Course in Decatur. But Saban and Cosler are the undisputed team leaders.
“I think it starts from the top, with Frankie and Emily kind of setting the tone [with] all the work that they do over the winter,” Allen said. “They’re good friends on and off the course [and] they push each other. I knew we’d be good because we have girls that really work hard.
“Last year we were probably a year ahead of schedule. Maybe we didn’t play as well as we’d have liked down there, but the whole experience was new for the girls and I think that bodes well for this year. We know what to expect.”
And everyone in the Sandburg program is expecting a lot.
“This is super exciting,” Cosler said. “We think we can go top three.”
That would bring a trophy back to the school, a first for girls' golf.
“I’ve always said we’ve had a four-year plan since I was a freshman,” Saban said. “We have such great potential. A top-three finish would be awesome.”
Clearly, the Eagles aren’t lacking for confidence, but they’re not just talking. These girls can play.
“They play a lot of tournament golf over the summer, and that’s key [to be] getting that tournament golf in,” Allen said. “Then you get used to playing with a little pressure and playing tough courses.
“It takes a lot of commitment. It’s a simple formula, though — they put in the time and effort and they see the results.”
How much golf? The schedules followed by Cosler and Saban are a window into how teens who excel in a sport find outlets.
For the serious young player the high school season is the tail end of a year that generally includes a full slate of summer tournaments in the Illinois Junior Golf Association. Many highly accomplished players tee it up in regional and national tournaments as well.
Cosler, for instance, won an IJGA tournament at Silver Lake in 2013 and also picked up a pair of second places and a third that same summer, good for 11th in the IJGA Player of the Year standings. This year, against competitors from across the country, she finished second in a two-day tournament at Notre Dame — her favorite school — and fifth in one at The Rail in Springfield in March, both on the Plantation Tour.
Saban, who took third in an American Junior Golf Association tournament in Winnetka and tied for third at the Shrine Invitational at Medinah this summer, proved her toughness last October by firing a career-low 2-under 69 with four birdies down the stretch at Coyote Run Golf Course in Flossmoor. That enabled her to claim individual sectional honors and helped the Eagles secure their state berth. She’s since lowered her career mark in casual play to 68.
Both girls have elite teachers — Saban takes lessons from John Platt at Mistwood in Romeoville while Cosler works with Kevin Weeks at Cog Hill in Lemont. Saban and Cosler represent a 1-2 punch that south suburban girls’ golf hasn’t seen since Ashley Armstrong and Michelle Mayer were a dynamic duo for Homewood-Flossmoor from 2008-2010.
The Vikings, who won one state title and bookended that crown with two runner-up showings, were deeper than Sandburg is now. H-F’s third player, Ryann Gilley, also scored a Division I scholarship. However, this year’s Eagles have more depth than SouthWest Suburban Conference Blue rival Lincoln-Way East, which stars University of Illinois-Chicago recruit Kelly Sterling.
But being conference kingpin is only the beginning.
“We want to return to state,” Cosler said. “We’ve done a lot of work and that was part of it. In the winter we were at McQ’s [golf dome in Bolingbrook] three days a week.”
The work has paid off in added length. On the par-4 17th of Silver Lake’s North course, a 283-yard test from the ladies’ tees, both Cosler and Saban blew their tee shots over the bunker protecting the dogleg left, leaving them with 45-yard pitch shots to the green.
“I work a lot on swing speed,” said Saban, petite but with a powerful swing.
“I’ve always been an aggressive player,” Cosler said with a smile. “We had a little gap in the trees.”
Cosler shot 37, Saban 36, just under the ladies’ par of 38 and just over the standard par of 35. Their respective scores lapped the field.
The high school season is short — the state championship weekend is Oct. 17 and18, and for Saban it’s the final go-around before she trades in her Sandburg blue and gold for Bradley red and black.
“I want to see how my golf game grows,” Saban said. “I’d love to be a golf coach or play professionally some day. I never get away from golf, never get burned out.
“I played travel softball for three years and got completely burned out, [but] not [with] golf. I just want to be the best player I can be.”