Just like a well-oiled machine, the Highland High School golf program continues to serve as a major pipeline for colleges looking to fill their rosters with duffers ready to hit the next level.
And in the case of Laura McCandless, she not only gets a chance to take her game to that next level, she also gets the rare opportunity to help establish a brand-new program at the same time.
McCandless became the eighth golfer in the past 14 years from Highland High School to play her way onto a college team when she signed a letter of intent to play golf at Missouri State University-West Plains last week.
After starting a men's golf program at MSU-WP two years ago, Coach Phil Wade is taking the next step by putting together a ladies' squad, one ready to hit the links next fall.
"We're looking forward to having Laura as part of our inaugural season of golf at Missouri State-West Plains," said Wade. "We've got four ladies signed to play now and we're continuing to recruit. But we're excited that Laura is part of our program."
At Highland, McCandless was a major part of the success that the Lady Rebels have enjoyed the past several seasons, culminating with the 2007 Class 4A State Championship this past fall.
"The last four years, the girls' program here has been pretty good, but she's came on and added a great mental attitude for the team. She was a major tool in our state championship this year," said Highland Head Coach Stan Maag. "She had an injury her sophomore year and had to sit out that season. But she came back and was really focused, especially this year. She wanted to continue playing golf; West Plains was not the only school looking at her, there were several others, as well."
In addition to playing on the state and regional tournament winning squad at Highland last fall, McCandless was also the district medalist in 2004 and 2007, was the regional medalist runner-up in 2004, was the Blazer Invitational medalist and played on the Lady Rebs' back-to-back-to-back district championship teams from 2005-07.
And according to Wade, with a little work, McCandless could also see great returns at the college level, as well.
"I think she'll be an excellent player. We'll spend the summer working with her. She's going to work at Turkey Mountain (Horseshoe Bend) this summer, and Chuck McNeight (PGA Pro at Turkey Mountain) is going to be working with her, helping to bring her along. And she'll be coming up here (West Plains) to work some, so I don't think she'll have any trouble at all going to the next level."
Part of that summer work will concentrate on McCandless' ability to drive the ball, with her short game around the greens already being one of her strong points.
"We're going to work with her on increasing her distance over the summer. I think she has an excellent short game, but the college game is a little longer and a little harder, so we'll have to get her prepared for that, but I think she's capable of playing at this level," Wade said. "But, it's all part of a learning curve and this will be a place for her to prepare herself for the next level after this one."
The strength of her short game can be traced back to an injury that sidelined McCandless during her sophomore year at Highland.
"She has really worked on her short game, especially when she was hurt," Maag said. "She couldn't take a full swing, so she worked on her putting and chipping around the green. She has a great attitude and she never gets down on a bad swing. She always bounces back. She doesn't have any negative carryover from hole to hole, which is what you need to have to play this game."
And while the golf program at MSU-WP is still taking baby steps, those steps are certainly pointed in the right direction.
"The mens' program is two years old. The first year we competed in the national tournament and had a player finish in the top 30," said Wade. "Last fall, we won our first tournament, which a lot of golf teams will go several years without winning a tournament, so we've really had some success early, and we hope to do the same with the ladies' program."
Laying a solid foundation and then continuing to build on it is what Wade has in mind for his golfers at MSU-WP, with stability and success as the payoffs down the road.
"We hope to have both the mens' and ladies' programs in place and successful down the road, five years from now," he said. "That's our goal. The purpose of our program is to provide an opportunity for regional players that maybe don't have a chance to play at the next level, right now. Our goal is to provide the opportunity to help them grow and get two years of education and perhaps move on to the next level."
An opportunity that Maag thinks McCandless is fully capable of taking advantage of.
"I think Coach Wade has found a real diamond in the rough with Laura," said Maag. "She's going to continue to get better. She's a great student and really loves the game, which made her a big plus for the golf program here at Highland. He's (Wade) really interested in his players and young people, plus he's a great golfer in his own right, and I think he will be able to use Laura well at the next level. I'm excited for her. The opportunity to be a student-athlete and have someone help pay for your college so you don't have to ... that's a great honor."