Complete redemption and a flip of the script.
College of the Canyons women’s golf achieved both on Tuesday after winning the program’s fifth state championship. Last year, Canyons held a 10-stroke lead going into day two of the state title match. COC thought the championship was well in the bag, but some late mistakes dealt the Cougars a heartbreaking loss.
This season, Canyons entered day two of the California Community College Athletic Association State Championships in fourth place down three strokes. The team had collectively hit right around its average with 340 strokes on day one. COC had proven throughout the season it could shave some strokes off its scores in two-day tournaments, but the Cougars outdid themselves when it mattered most.
Canyons finished off day two with 320 strokes as a team, its best finish of the season. The shaving of 20 strokes was way more than enough to earn the Canyons’ program its fifth state title, tying COC for the all-time most California state championships.
The team was led by sophomores Motoko Shimoji and Flora Peugnet. The two were part of last year’s team that fell just short but did the work to return to the championship and take what slipped away in 2022.
“The first day we were down by a lot and we didn’t know if a comeback was possible or not,” Shimoji told the Signal in a phone interview. “Everyone got together and played their best round of the season. We came back and got our trophy.”
Shimoji led Canyons by more than 20 strokes on day one, shooting just over par with 73 strokes. While Shimoji added three strokes on her second day, Peugnet and the rest of the Cougars stepped up and all shaved at least five strokes.
Shimoji missed out on an individual championship by one stroke, as she only trailed Citrus College’s Isabelle Olivas-Lowell, but was still awarded all-state honors.
“I didn’t feel pressure,” Shimoji said. “If I think about scores, I can’t play, so I just try not to think about that. The team was in a good mood and we all didn’t feel much pressure.”
COC coach Gary Peterson was amazed to see his team, which had never shot below 331, shoot 320 and pull through such a tight pack and finish with a clear-cut 14-stroke victory.
“It was extremely rewarding,” Peterson said in a phone interview. “The four girls that played last year knew the pain from last year. It was retribution to achieve the goal that we did.”
The win wasn’t a shock for Peterson but definitely a surprise after the team came alive on day two.
“We had never really played to our potential all season,” Peterson said. “I was happy to be there and was hoping to come back with a trophy. In the first round, I thought we did well but I was pleasantly surprised with the second. Bottom line is they peaked at the exact right time.”
Peugnet made the biggest improvement on day two, dropping 10 strokes. Just behind her was Saugus alumna Brooke Maxwell, who shot 168 and shaved eight strokes off of her day one totals.
Freshman Elena Ortuno-Montalban trailed with a 183-stroke finish, just ahead of Nisha Gaulke.
Gaulke was the surprise of the season for Canyons. The golfer in her mid-40’s already has a doctorate in biochemistry but has competitive golf left in the tank and joined the COC team. Gaulke played two seasons ago before sitting out last year in order to get more credits.
“It’s neat to have a returning student with more experience be on the golf team with younger players,” Peterson said. “I’ve had this several times. We’ve had 35-year-olds and two 60-year- olds with 18-year-olds on another state championship team.”
COC looked strong from the jump and won five of six Western State Conference matches, highlighted by a 14-stroke win in the opener at San Dimas Golf Course back in August. The team’s one conference runner-up finish was hardly an off day, as the team ended the day just one stroke out from first place.
“We lost by one shot to Moorpark on their own course,” Peterson said. “That loss might have been good for us. Often a loss in the mid-season can be good. It can kick you in the backside and make sure you keep trying.”
The domination of the conference was most notable when it mattered most. Canyons played a strong pair of rounds at the WSC championships and took home its 12th title after winning by 24 strokes.
Canyons played well but fell to third in the CCCAA SoCal Championships. The team got a preview of how competitive the state championship would be, as they trailed Mt. San Antonio College and Moorpark College. The bronze finish was still enough to push the Cougars into the state match, where they knew they’d have to be at their best.
Peterson never saw a turning point with his team and had no easy reason for how the ladies hit another gear on day two. The coach jokes it might’ve been the Korean food the team ate the night before, as the group usually just sticks to simpler meals like pizza for team dinners.
“I think they rose to the occasion,” Peterson said. “I don’t know anything other than that they wanted to do very well. They knew they wanted to win. The weird thing about this, I’ve been in so many state championships, all you gotta do is get there and it’s basically a roll of the dice.”
Shimoji and Peugnet will likely continue their golf careers at four-year schools. The all-state golfer was grateful for Peterson, her teammates and her time at COC.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot,” Shimoji said. “When I first came to COC, I had just started playing golf seriously. I didn’t have much knowledge about golf. I thought, ‘What’s so hard about golf, just hit the ball hard.’ I gained so much knowledge and learned to be a better player. Gary helped me develop my golf game in so many ways.”
The sophomore was also proud of her team bonding as she believes it made the unit stronger.
“We were definitely way closer than last year,” Shimoji said. “After practice, we went out to eat and we did a lot of team bonding. We did everything we could to be a better team.”
Peterson, who has led the program since its birth 24 years ago, isn’t going anywhere and will return along with Ortuno-Montalban and freshman Linnea Nilsson.
“I’m just sad they’re moving on,” Peterson said. “If you look at my phone or Facebook, 80% of my contacts and friends are former golfers. This is a really big part of my life and I still like it a lot.”
In the meantime, the head coach will switch his focus to the men’s team, which will look to match the women’s team and be in the hunt for the program’s 11th state title.
Peterson knows he hasn’t seen the last of his sophomores as he believes they are destined for great things whether it be on or off the green.
“Whatever they take away from this event, they have to believe that there’s nothing they can’t do, not just in golf but in their lives,” Peterson said. “If they set their minds to a goal, and work hard, they’re unstoppable people.”