If the St. Joseph girls golf team is going to win its seventh-straight SMAC championship, it will have to do so with new faces.

The Bears lost three of its top five from last year, including all-state standout Cailey Rooker, who is currently golfing on scholarship at Valparaiso.

"We have some big shoes to fill," St. Joseph coach Ryan Walters said. "I've been really happy with how hard the girls worked during the offseason. Playing well so far considering our overall lack of experience."

Junior Maya Hunter has emerged as the Bears' top golfer with an average score of 83. Sophomore Madison Jackson has improved her average from 120 to 94.

"(Maya) is playing really well right now," Walters said. "She was right around a 93 average last year. She's been our top player in every event. Leah (Terry) has had some nice rounds for us and is a great team leader.

"Madison has improved immensely and has the second-best average on the team. She was pretty new to the game last year."

Terry is averaging a 91 to start the year and fellow senior Bella Finnigan has improved a great deal in a short amount of time.

"Leah has had some nice rounds for us," Walters said. "She's a great team leader. Bella came out for golf two years ago having never played golf before. She worked really hard to make varsity. She's become a leader on the team."

What St. Joseph may lack in experience, the Bears make up for it with their work ethic.

"They've put in a lot of time," Walters said. "It's a group that likes to have fun. They enjoy each other. I'm blessed to have a great group of high-character kids. Beyond everything else, we want that to be what we're about."

Lakeshore program may only be a few years old but head coach Pam Porter likes the improvement she's seeing from the players.

Paige Gardner, Isabella Najera, Claire Gourlay, Isabella Parker, Lily Florian, Olivia Miller make up this year's squad.

"Being able to watch these teams progress has been exciting," Porter said. "I've seen major improvements; everyone has improved by about 20 strokes. I've seen a total change in work ethic. They see what's possible and are much more focused.

"This is a building year for us but I'm excited to see what they do in the future."

Mattawan, St. Joseph, Portage Central, and Niles are among the SMAC's best teams. Even though a conference championship may be out of the question, Porter and the Lancers still have something to strive for.

"We can probably qualify a few individuals for the state tournament," she said. "That would be our goal for the year."

Niles is in the mix again as one of the top teams in the SMAC. Aynslee Myer and Katie Bruckner have graduated after leading the Vikings to a second-place finish at Division 2 regionals and a berth in the Division 3 finals. Willow Brawley, Skyler Brawley, and Maddie Lister return to try to guide the team to a possible follow-up appearance at state.

South Haven and Dowagiac are contending for their respective divisions in the Wolverine Conference. Dowagiac hopes to hold off Sturgis in the South Division. The Chieftains are led by Rebecca Franklin and Greta Whitaker, while Caley Ruff and Lynsie Stolpe round out the top four.

South Haven is duking it out with Plainwell in the North Division this year. The Rams have a skilled, deep roster of golfers in Jenna Ridley, Abby Bocock, Makenzie Marr, Sydney Barnes, Jina Patel, and Lyndsee Ford.

Michigan Lutheran has three players golfing so far this season. The Titans may not be able to score as a team but Josey VanderMarkt, Dorie Schlutt, and Mia Harris will focus on personal improvement.

Contact: mharden@thehp.com, 932-0371, @HPMaxwellHarden