The Lady Knights sure have been making up for lost time.
On the heels of the Hillsdale girls’ golf team clinching the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division championship, it wasn’t too difficult to quantify the program history as to the last time this happened.
“I’ll have to say never,” Hillsdale head coach David Godoy said. “That’s why it’s been a monumental year.”
The driving force of the Knights’ historic season is freshman Ashlyn Johnson, who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of Hillsdale’s rotation. And last Wednesday when she sunk a birdie on the 9th hole to finish with a 1-over 37 at Poplar Creek, Johnson clinched a contentious 238-241 team victory over San Mateo to seal that elusive Bay Division regular-season championship.
Johnson has topped the scoring card for the Knights consistently all season. Yet the reason the freshman has been named Daily Journal Athlete of the Week has more to do with her guts on that 9th hole than anything else.
With her second shot on the par-5 hole bounding into the rough and nestling behind a tree, it would have been easy for Johnson to merely lay up. But where’s the fun in that? So, instead of punching it under the arching branches, Johnson grabbed her trusty sand wedge and went to work.
“It felt good because I had a tough second shot, I was behind a tree, and I’m like: I can hit it under the tree,’” Johnson said. “But I was like: ‘Why not just go for it?’”
It turned out to be a championship choice. Johnson smashed a lofty shot over the branches and onto the green, and even came within three feet of sinking an eagle.
While the freshman settled for birdie, she’s had some noteworthy eagles in recent memory. Not with Hillsdale. But playing the club circuit out of the Peninsula Golf & Country Club, she has fired eagles on three different holes this year, including two during one round.
The other one has turned into a commemorative keepsake she keeps in the trophy case, a hole-in-one she fired Feb. 20 at the Peninsula Golf & Country Club. As part of a foursome with her grandmother and two of her grandmother’s friends, Johnson took aim and hit a tee shot on line but lost sight of it on the high green.
When the foursome’s golf cart approached the green, Johnson didn’t see the ball. So, her grandmother’s friend Geri Nicholas ran over to the cup to investigate.
“And then she started screaming: ‘It’s in the hole,’” Johnson said.
Johnson’s Hillsdale teammates have had a similar reaction to the freshman joining the varsity ranks this season. The roster includes three seniors — Lei Ah Tou, Jacqui Landucci and Chase Nestor — who two years ago endured a winless varsity season. The Knights improved in the truncated 2020-21 spring season when newcomers Ava Saiki and Kayla Truong joined the squad.
This year, Hillsdale’s balanced squad of three seniors, two sophomores and one breakout freshman has run the table in PAL Bay Division play thus far, posting a 10-0 record with two matches to go.
And the balance of the squad has been a cornerstone of the Knights’ success. While Johnson shot aa 37 in last Wednesday’s clincher, San Mateo’s top gun, Lindsay Huang, was better, claiming medalist honors with a 35. San Mateo’s Hanna Sangha was close behind with a 40. But Hillsdale got clutch performances across the board, with Saiki shooting a 46, Landucci a 50, Ah Tou a 52, and Nestor and Truong 53s.
“The 2 through 5 actually have been super consistent with what has been our goal — breaking 50,” Godoy said.
The catalyst, though, has been Johnson.
“Ashlyn Johnson had turned this team around,” Godoy said. “The girls all know how good she is and it’s contagious.”
Johnson has played the sport since she was 8, when she started going to the driving range with her father Dave, who now serves as an assistant coach for Hillsdale. It took her a few years to get the hang of it but started playing tournaments when she was 10.
While she was growing with the sport, Johnson was adapting and overcoming a severe hearing impairment. Johnson was born deaf. She now hears with the help of cochlear implants in each ear, the first she got at age 4 and the other at 7.
Johnson now hears relatively well but she often relies on reading lips to communicate effectively. This has presented a unique problem for her throughout the coronavirus pandemic, as she can’t read lips when most everyone is wearing masks. This especially affects her in the classroom, she said.
“Because I’m really good at reading lips but if someone is wearing mask … it’s so hard, especially when students are all speaking at once,” Johnson said.
On the golf course, though, Johnson lets her golf clubs do her talking. And her presence has influenced a renaissance for a Hillsdale golf team that is making history and having fun doing it.
“She’s such a strong player,” Godoy said. “She keeps us in the match no matter what.”