Editor’s note: This is the first in a nine-part series previewing fall high school sports. Thursday: Cross country.

MISSOULA — For a golfer to card a five normally means they hit par or had a bogey. But Emily Garden was ecstatic to record this particular five.

The Sentinel junior scored a ‘5,’ the highest possible score, on her Advanced Placement Human Geography test this past spring, her first semester at Sentinel.

While she transferred from Hellgate because of the opportunity to take more AP classes at Sentinel, she joins a golf team that tied for second at the Class AA state meet. She’s expected to play a key role atop the leaderboard and in terms of leadership as the Spartans aim for a repeat trophy performance while replacing three graduates.

“It was different, definitely,” Garden said via phone of competing in Sentinel colors at the Great Falls Invitational, where she tied for seventh on Tuesday. “Some girls (from other teams) noticed I transferred, but overall the feel of the team got me fired up, and it just felt very good to play. It was upbeat, positive, very supporting, even though I haven’t known these girls for very long.”

She hasn’t known golf all that long, either. She tried golf at her dad’s urging in April of her eighth grade year after she gave up softball because she “didn’t have the passion for it any more” after six years.

Six months later, she finished 19th at the Class AA state championship as a freshman. She shot a 93-91-184 to tie with Sentinel then-junior Sara Michell for the highest placing that year by a Missoula golfer.

As a sophomore, she added a few strokes, shooting a 94-95-189 that placed her 28th. It was the best Hellgate finish by 21 strokes and would’ve placed her third among Sentinel golfers behind then-seniors Michell (85-88—173) and Sydnee Nowlen (89-86—175).

Garden wasn’t pleased with the performance and went to work this past offseason with her dad and Connor Sproull, the Missoula Country Club head golf professional.

“Last year I wasn’t hitting the ball great, but we reworked my swing,” Garden said. “We worked on ball striking and getting it solid. I’ve really focused a lot on putting, making those four footers that I would otherwise miss and maybe make a bogey instead of a par.”

She joins a team that has to replace all-state golfer Michell, Nowlen and Halle Nurse (100-104-204), who helped Sentinel tie for second at state with Helena High (747). Sentinel hasn’t won a girls golf state championship since winning back-to-back AA titles in 1978 and 1979.

Garden will be one of three Sentinel girls with state experience, joining Lauren Peterson (96-99-195) and Marissa Breum (112-111-223). Raela Reinhart is a returning letterwinner but didn’t compete at state.

Although Sentinel coach Craig Matosich acknowledged some inexperience on the team, he sees potential. If the team improves throughout the season and is playing its best at the end of the season, he expects to be back on the trophy stand.

“I think we’re in a different place (compared to last year) where we have a little bit higher expectations,” Matosich said. “We got seventh two years ago, second last year. Now there’s some expectations that goes with it. But those are good things. There’s no pressure that goes with them. It’s just, I think we’ve established ourselves. At least I would hope so.”

While he doesn’t name captains, he looks for leadership all around. He expects Garden to be looked upon as a leader because of her natural golf abilities. He also noticed how she could be a positive role model because of the helpfulness and friendly nature she displayed to other students in his Honors Algebra II course in the spring.

In Peterson and Breum, he’s seen a consistent, positive energy, which he said is hard to keep in golf. He expects the younger players to benefit from that.

In this test, it’s a group effort.

“I have high expectations,” Garden said. “I see a lot of potential with the other girls that I’m playing with. I think they’re going to improve a lot. I think I have a lot of potential to improve and do my best at state this year.”

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