Sports editor’s note: This is the third installment of the ‘Celebration Saturday’ series highlighting top individual and team achievements in the West Central Tribune area. Today’s story looks at the 1985 Willmar girls golf state championship team.
WILLMAR — Two things stick out about the 1985 Willmar girls golf team and its state Class AA championship.
The team title was the first in any sport for Willmar. And, the gnats were bad.
“The gnats were terrible,” Nancy Hellander-Pung remembered.
“Oh, they were terrible,” head coach Elaine Engle said. “I carried dryer sheets with us.
“The girls were wearing dryer sheets in their hair. The gnats were so bad they’d get into your eyes. It was a challenge. But that’s what sports are supposed to be.”
The dryer sheets did the trick.
Willmar shot a two-day, 36-hole total of 554 to edge Burnsville by three strokes. Perennial power Edina, which has won 12 state championships, took third with a 562, at Majestic Oaks Golf Club in Ham Lake.
“It was just a lot of joy,” Hellander-Pung said of the ‘85 state tournament. “It really came down to how we pulled together as a team. It was really fun.”
Hellander and teammate Beth Magnuson tied for fourth overall with 173s. Sophomores Sara Olson and Stephanie Lindblad rounded out the Cardinals’ foursome. Lindblad had a 208 and Olson a 211.
“They were just really, really nice kids,” Engle said.
They also helped the program reach its pinnacle in an era when the Cardinals were consistently one of the top teams in the state.
“I remember we were supposed to be the favorites (at state) and we didn’t win it,” Hellander-Pung said.
Close in ‘84
In 1984, Willmar missed the state tournament by two strokes. Knowing the Cardinals were close, the goal for the next season was set.
“I always put the state tournament on the calendar because we were down there quite a bit,” said Engle, a female sports coaching pioneer who started the golf program in 1972. “We knew we had a shot at it.”
The Cardinals were in the middle of qualifying for state eight times in that era. Included were three runner-up and one third-place finish.
Willmar won Central Lakes Conference titles in 1981, ‘82 and ‘83 and took second to Alexandria in ‘84 and ‘85. Like Willmar, Alexandria also was in the ‘85 state tournament, finishing sixth. Alex remains a power, having been to state 20 times.
“We had a tough conference,” said Engle, a member of the Willmar High School Athletic Hall of Fame. “And I think that made us better, too, because of it.
“At sections, we’d see all different teams. But we always thought that we’d already seen a lot of good teams because of our conference.”
“Willmar was just a power in girls golf,” said retired West Central Tribune sports writer Rand Middleton, who also is a member of the Willmar High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
Middleton covered the state tournament in Ham Lake. He said he remembered driving home elated about the historic achievement. He listened to WCCO-AM’s Steve Cannon’s show, ‘The Cannon Mess,’ which was the top-rated drive-time radio show in the country.
“He mentioned Willmar’s state championship, which I thought was really something,” Middleton said.
He made the radio mention his lead in the next day’s paper.
Leading the way
Magnuson, a junior, led the way. She and Hellander earned all-conference honors in ‘85. Magnuson won them again in ‘86. But at state, Hellander shot an 84 the first day and Magnuson had an 87.
“I remember being really, really nervous that second day,” Hellander-Pung said. “I was playing with the first group.
“I got to play with Katie Hughes. Do you know who that is?”
Hughes, from Woodbury, won the state title. She went on to be an All-American at the University of Minnesota. Hellander-Pung and Hughes became friends.
But in Hellander-Pung’s mind, Magnuson led the way.
“Beth always played No. 1 for me,” Engle said. “Nancy came up to me one time and said, ‘If you spend extra time with me, do you think I can be as good as Beth?’
“I said, ‘Maybe.’”
Hellander-Pung went on to play at St. Cloud State. Both her and Maguson, whose married name was Tinklenberg, became coaches. Hellander-Pung coached at Elk River, Hopkins and Minneapolis Edison. She now works in the Minneapolis Public Schools as an instructional coach. She and her husband, Jason Pung, live in Robbinsdale. Their daughter, Sophia, is a three-sport athlete (soccer, Nordic skiing and golf). Sophia was part of a state championship ski team at Robbinsdale Armstrong in 2019.
Magnuson coached golf at Lac qui Parle Valley. She died in 2007 from complications from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The team was inducted into Willmar’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005.
The mention of the ‘85 squad brings back good memories for Engel.
“I always said they’ve got to be ladies first and then really good golfers,” Engel said. “That’s how I expected them to act and they did. I was very proud of them.
“They always dressed sharp, acted appropriately and represented Willmar very well.”
Hellander-Pung considered herself fortunate to grow up in Willmar, which had easy access to the course, and to play for Engel.
“I’m grateful and blessed to have had that opportunity to grow up in such a great community and to have a great teacher and coach in Elaine,” she said.
Each Saturday, the West Central Tribune is taking a look back at outstanding athletic teams and/or individuals. Today’s story is on the 1985 state championship Willmar girls golf team. Here’s a list of teams covered so far:
May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)
May 23, 26 — 2009 New London-Spicer football
May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf team
Here are the final team results for the 1985 Class AA girls golf tournament at Majestic Oaks in Ham Lake: