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This Group Is in Full Swing

Savanna has become a force in girls' golf thanks in large part to softball players who have made a smooth transition and now play both sports.

September 30, 2004|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

A 29-match winning streak by the girls' golf team at San Clemente, Palm Desert or Rolling Hills Estates Peninsula would probably not be out of the question.

But Anaheim Savanna?

With softball players who, for the most part, had never picked up a golf club until the start of the season?

Well, the Rebels accomplished just that.

"If you can hit a moving ball with a bat," said senior Melissa Vigoren, Savanna's most experienced golfer, "it couldn't be much harder hitting one sitting still."

Spurred on by athletes more comfortable with aluminum bats than irons and metal woods, Savanna has reached heights of success not imagined before Mike Willey took over the program five seasons ago.

Willey was the softball coach at the time -- and still is -- and the golf team had lost 35 of 36 matches in its first two seasons.

Hoping to get out of coaching girls' basketball in the winter, which took time from his off-season softball program, Willey volunteered to coach the golf team.

He then recruited softball players to swing a different kind of stick on the Rebels' home course, Dad Miller Golf Course in Anaheim.

"They've got great hand-eye coordination and they don't like losing," Willey said of the softball players who have made the transition through the years. "They're competitive within themselves. It's intrinsic; I don't have to drive them to do better."

Willey's golf teams finished 10-7, 14-6 and 16-4 in successive years before finishing 18-0 and winning the Orange League title last year. Savanna finished 17th among 23 teams in the Southern Section championships.

"We're not going to shoot 200, we're going to shoot 240, 250," Willey said. "But if there are 100 teams that play golf, 17 out of 100 is pretty respectable."

This season, Savanna won its first five matches, but a week ago was beaten by Laguna Beach, which shot 52 strokes fewer than it had a day earlier against Mission Viejo Trabuco Hills.

"I told the kids if we shot a 270, we'd win," Willey said. They lost, 247-270, and their 29-match winning streak was over. The Rebels (6-1) play Bellflower today at Lakewood Country Club.

"When you get athletes, you can teach them," said Jim Ferguson, who has coached the Long Beach Wilson boys' golf team for 13 years and its girls' team since its inception in 1998.

"He's taking the smart way," Ferguson said. "Savanna doesn't have country-club players. Some of us are fortunate. Other schools are starting from scratch. It's a good plan."

The Rebels' No. 1 player, Vigoren, is an All-Orange League soccer player. Senior Natalie Rodriguez, a shortstop and outfielder, is in her third season on the golf team.

They are supported by four teammates new to the sport: senior pitcher Nicole Loken, junior outfielders Tiffany and Cynthia Flynn and freshman catcher Brittany Marchant.

"I'm really shocked at how much they've improved," said Vigoren, who took up the sport before entering high school and is the only player to have received professional instruction.

It was a move, Willey said, made entirely for the benefit of the softball program. He figured the team's chemistry would improve by keeping players together throughout the year.

"It's been bliss here," Willey said. "Golf is like my side deal, but it's been great."

Ironically, his golf team won a league title before his softball team, though Savanna won that, too, last spring -- its first in 14 years.

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