Canon-McMillan High School boys golf coach Justin White vividly remembers his team's reaction when his Big Macs learned that Lauren Waller would be joining the team following a stellar freshman season at Shady Side Academy.
"She was readily accepted by the boys as soon as they saw her play," White said. "That was her 'in' with the group, and she's made a huge impact."
During the past two seasons, Waller, who helped Shady Side to WPIAL Division I and PIAA team championships in 2011, has played against boys all season as there is no girls golf team at Canon-McMillan.
"She's either in our No. 1 or No. 2 spot on the team," White said. "She's taken a leadership role on the team, and they have become a pretty tight-knit group, and played pretty well as a team."
Waller said the initial reaction from her teammates was interesting.
"It was a hard adjustment at first," she said. "But the guys were accepting, and I adjusted quickly. Off the bat, I shot 34, 35 and 35 at tryouts, and they realized I'm a good player and can help them win. But it was a good transition."
She competes against other females once postseason play begins on the sectional level.
Competing against boys has helped her, and that was evident on Sept. 30 when she tamed the par-73 course at Hill Crest Country Club in Lower Burrell with a 2-over-par round of 75 and a five-stroke victory against runner-up Mia Kness, a Peters Township freshman.
She and six other qualifiers will compete Wednesday in the PIAA Class AAA Western Regional at Tom's Run Golf Course in Blairsville. Waller won the 2012 Western Regional title with an even-par round of 72.
At the PIAA championship in York, she earned all-state honors with a third-place finish and a two-day total of 148, 4 over par. Both girls who finished in front of her are back this season.
Tied with three other golfers after the front nine last week at Hill Crest with scores of 39, Waller, a junior, took control with a 1-under-par score of 36 on the back nine while all of her rivals shot 40 or more.
She said the round got off to a fine start.
"In the first couple of holes, I was making a lot of putts," she said. "I struggled on the last couple of holes [on the front nine], but I kept my composure. I brought it back on the back nine."
Part of Waller's issues on the front nine -- where she was 3 over par at the championship tournament -- stemmed from a balky driver.
"I could not hit a straight ball on the front nine; I kept hitting it right," she said. "That cost me because I hit into trees and punched out. I got two double-bogeys on the last two holes [of the front nine], but on the back nine, my driving got better and my fairway play was pretty good. And, putting was key today."
Waller said Tom's Run is a good test for her.
"It's a tight course," she said. "There are a lot of trees, and you have to hit it straight. If I play well and hit it straight, it helps my game. Last year, I was able to play very well and conquer the course. I'm ready to play it."
First Published October 10, 2013 8:00 PM