Prep golf | IMG players give Saint Stephen's girls team shot at first state title

IMG students from Asia give Falcons shot at first state title

jdill@bradenton.comOctober 30, 2012 

BRADENTON

The mission is simple: Train at a well-known golf academy, then land at a college with the hopes of playing professionally.

The high school golf season?

Well, that's just an added bonus for the Saint Stephen's girls golf team.

The Falcons squad, composed of four players from China and one from India, have delivered the program two consecutive scorching postseason performances.

The region tournament result -- the Falcons won by 34 shots with a team score of 296 on Oct. 22 at Lemon Bay Golf Club in Englewood -- has led Saint Stephen's to the Class 1A state golf tournament that starts on Tuesday in Howey-in-the-Hills at Mission Inn's Las Colinas course.

Only two teams, Plantation American Heritage (278) and Lake Mary Prep (290), posted better region scores than Saint Stephen's.

Three of the players -- Phoebe Zhao, Michelle Yan and Vanessa Yan -- train at IMG Academy. Zhao is a junior from northeast China, while the Yan sisters hail from Hong Kong. Michelle is a freshman, and Vanessa

is an eighth-grader.

The other two players on the team are senior Yvonne Zheng (from China) and freshman Nupur Mathur (from India).

With just four players, instead of usual five, competing at the district tournament, Saint Stephen's captured the title by 73 shots. That number shrunk in the region tourney triumph, but it also showcased how much the Falcons players have improved over the year. Michelle Yan said she was averaging in the mid-to-high 80s last year, and she posted a 75 at district and a season-low 69 at regionals.

"There's a lot of facilities, and it's in really good shape," said Michelle Yan about how IMG has elevated her game. "Everybody's focused here. And the coaches really pay attention to the individuals as in your game, your skills and technique and how you think. It's pretty well-rounded."

Their dedication to getting better is readily apparent.

A usual weekday consists of going to school, working on golf for about three hours and physical training, followed by some dinner and studying before falling asleep and repeating the routine the next day.

Despite playing in just six matches this season, winning all six, the players have developed good chemistry.

And it has aided Saint Stephen's bid to claim the program's first girls golf team state championship.

"We're all Asian, so we have this connecting bond," Michelle Yan said. "We have a really close-knit team this year."

IMG Academy golf instructor Kevin Collins coaches Zhao.

"She's got a fantasic short game," Collins said. "And she understands the game well. She manages her game very nicely. The high school golf competitions are played at a little shorter distances, which is great for her and the Yan sisters. They aren't very big right now, but they hit the ball very solidly."

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