High School Sports

Maureen Dunnagan is leaving a legacy at Lexington High

Maureen Dunnagan returns to help lead perennial powerhouse Lexington's pursuit of another state championship.
Maureen Dunnagan returns to help lead perennial powerhouse Lexington's pursuit of another state championship.

High school, we are told, is the best time of our lives - and occasionally the worst, too. Maureen Dunnagan would not disagree.

On a recent afternoon, she stood looking out over the back nine at the Country Club of Lexington, where so many of those times took place. She reflected to the beginning, which seemed like another lifetime to her; after all, six years is a long time ... when you're 17.

The Lexington High senior remembered her first high school golf state championship experience this way: "I didn't understand 'state championship,'" she said, laughing. "I told my folks, 'Oh, we won a tournament.'"

She was 12 at the time. Who knew then what lay ahead?

Dunnagan knows now.

On Oct. 27, Lexington High won its sixth consecutive state title and Dunnagan, the only player on all six teams, captured her first individual crown. It was a fitting conclusion to her high school career, a nice sendoff for her life with the N.C. State women's team next fall.

And yet ... "After we won, for a while I had these horrible dreams that they nullified our state title," Dunnagan said. "I'd wake up and go see if my ring was still there."

It always was, along with the four others: silver symbols of the Wildcats' dominance on display in her room, with a sixth - "maybe gold," she said - on the way. Yet even with all that hardware, there was no self-satisfaction. Dunnagan and classmate Kathryn Miranda, who will play for College of Charleston in 2010, were back on the range the day after the state tournament victory.

"Why not take a week off? Not them," said Brandon Smith, whose first year as coach was made easier, he said, by Dunnagan and Miranda. "Those girls did a tremendous job. They took the 'newbies' and showed them the proper practice techniques, what it takes.

"We've got a sixth-grader who might be a player and she looks up to Maureen so much that she's out there six days a week ... because she wants to be like Maureen Dunnagan."

That, Smith and others said, is the legacy of the Dunnagan Era: a tradition of success achieved through hard work, diligence and triumph over adversity.

What, you thought six state titles came easily? Well, some did. But not everything else has.

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Bryce Myers, who stepped down as Lexington's girls coach after 2008 to take an administrative job, remembers the two youngsters - cousins Danielle and Maureen Dunnagan - at the Lexington range in 2002, practicing alongside his girls' team.

"Maureen especially would outwork almost anybody," Myers said. "She had a passion for the game; you'd have to in order to spend two or three hours on the putting green - and then go to the range."

Danielle, six months older and a grade ahead, played for Myers' Lexington High team as a seventh-grader. A year later, in 2004, Maureen joined the team.

"Everyone knew about her before she came out," Myers said. "It wasn't a matter of 'if.' She was going to play for the team."

As a 12-year-old seventh-grader, Maureen played in the No. 1 spot, posting the team's best nine-hole averages every year. She did not do so on natural talent, though; far from it.

George Bryan III, her instructor from the time she was 7, said Maureen "didn't have that raw natural ability; she worked to get where she is.

"She has a special passion for not just the game, but for practicing, preparing and training. I haven't had any female students that young who worked that long, that hard and that smart. I haven't seen many males do it, either."

This year, best friends Miranda and Dunnagan fed off each other in practice with Miranda, the longer hitter, and Dunnagan, the short-game whiz, offering tips on each other's weaknesses.

"She's very competitive," Miranda said. "If she's not satisfied with something in her game, she tries to work it out. But she's also very encouraging, likes to give advice to the younger players about what to expect in tournaments."

Still, it was not all nose-to-the-grindstone. It was fun, too. In that way of the best girls' teams that is so different from boys, the Wildcats created a family environment in which older "sisters" helped younger ones - and where inside jokes, nicknames and silliness helped make the whole greater than its parts.

"We'd make team ribbons every year, goodie bags for regionals and state," said Maureen, known as "Mo Mo" or "Bo Jangles." Miranda - "Kat" or "Kit Kat" - specialized in inscribing the bags with quotes from each player.

"(Maureen's) quote was 'Nice ball, Daddy' from a time she played with her father (Dave, a 10-handicap) and kept saying in that country accent of hers, 'Nice ball, Daddy!'" Miranda said, laughing.

Myers was not immune to the nickname craze, either: "We'd call him 'Chicken and Bryce' or 'Bryce Cream' or 'Bryce Bryce Baby,' and he'd get so angry," Maureen said with a laugh.

On road trips, the recitation of a line from a favorite movie could reduce everyone to helpless laughter. And there was the infamous Sonic episode:

"When I was in eighth grade, it was raining one day and we figured (Myers) must've cancelled practice, so we all went to Sonic," Maureen said. "He showed up and was livid, hunted us down, made us run the golf course carrying our bags as punishment."

Years later, mentioning "Sonic" could send the team into shrieks of laughter - even ones who were not around for it.

That quirky combination of work and silly, girlish fun was perfect. Lexington, led by the Dunnagans and junior Kristen Cometto, won its first state title in 2004, over York High, by eight strokes. A year later, the Wildcats cruised by 42 shots, by 39 in 2006, 10 in 2007 and - with Danielle Dunnagan winning the individual state title as a senior - by 25 in 2008.

"We love and pull for each other," Maureen said. "That's really a big part of why we've been dominant for so long."

Lexington's last three titles came at the expense of runner-up Dorman High, a two-time state champion (2000, 2002). This fall, with Danielle and two other seniors gone, the time seemed ripe for the Cavaliers to end Lexington's run.

It seemed that way to everyone - except Maureen.

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For some time, Dunnagan has worked with Bryan on increasing her length off the tee - a shortcoming she knew would hurt her goal of college golf. "It didn't come quickly, but the last year and a half, she's easily gained 15-20 yards, and she's going to get longer," Bryan said.

That improvement, he said, is representative of Dunnagan's work ethic and drive. "To develop more club-head speed, she had to do things that didn't 'feel good': drills to increase her turn, to improve conditioning," he said. "She's very goal-oriented, and as a competitor she's absolutely fierce and tenacious."

That resolve was tested when, during the summer, Dunnagan suffered a left hip injury that turned out to be a chronic condition that plagued her during the past season.

"It pops out of place," she said. At a tournament near Charleston, "I thought I'd fractured it, was out for the year."

Instead, she played - and won, shooting rounds of 68-68.

Still, "it was really upsetting," Dunnagan said. "I went to Moore Orthopedic for physical therapy, and someone there said I should take three months off. He was like, 'High school season isn't that important.' That freaked me out."

Instead, she learned how to pop the hip back into place; that, plus ultrasound treatments, ice and "four to six Alleve a day," helped her overcome that and her chronic back pain.

With those physical problems, plus Miranda dealing with a bout of pneumonia, Lexington looked vulnerable. Smith said in four or five events when Dorman was in the field, "they whipped us every time." With the Cavaliers hosting the Class 4A championship at Three Pines Golf Course, most figured the title streak would come to an end.

Then, on the Monday a week before the event, Smith and his players played a practice round there. A day later, in what the coach called "the most impressive thing I can imagine," Dunnagan took charge of practice.

"She said, 'Let's go to the range and play every hole (at Tree Pines),'" he said. "We got out the scorecards, (assistant coach Kelly Evans) said, 'No. 10, par-4,' and Maureen said, 'You want to hit 3-wood, fly it so-and-so yards.' Another hole, she knows you've got to add two clubs to an uphill green.

"She knew every hole like the back of her hand - after playing it one time. She had no notes, but the next day she had a two-page paper outlining every hole. She had it memorized. That's the work ethic she has."

The outcome, in retrospect, was not a surprise. Lexington grabbed a nine-shot lead after the first day; the final round, played in a downpour, the Wildcats built their edge to 11 shots before play was temporarily halted.

"My best rounds have come in horrible weather," Dunnagan said.

Then the possibilities seemed to get to Lexington. When play resumed, Dorman trimmed the deficit to four. "They were making birdies, we were making doubles (bogeys)," Smith said.

Dunnagan - who shot 74-75 for the two days - and eventual runner-up Morgan Webber of Dorman (76-76) skipped the 16th hole due to muddy conditions. Dunnagan parred the 18th hole, and their group returned to No. 16 in near-darkness. "She was aware (she was leading) at that point," Smith said.

Dunnagan laughed at that. "Someone said, 'We've got a one-shot lead, it's all on you,'" she said.

When she putted out for par, Dunnagan had won by three shots, her team by four. "It definitely meant a lot more (than past titles), being so close," Miranda said. "We had to fight for it."

And Dunnagan? "I was proud of the effort the team gave," she said. "This one was so special - but I was happy to have it over with."

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She smiles now, more than a month removed from the perfect conclusion to six years of success. Dunnagan said she looks forward to college - "I love Raleigh" -and college golf, though that comes with a caveat.

"I hope it's as rewarding as high school golf, but I'm not sure how it can be," she said.

Bryan has no doubts. "Her best golf is in front of her," he said. "A lot of girls, if they're not playing great by 15 or 16, they lose interest. But she's passionate, and hungry."

Both her Lexington coaches - Myers for the first five titles, Smith for her individual crown - have contemplated life after the "Dunnagan Era." They say their lives will not be the same.

"I've been on the Winthrop Web site (where Danielle plays), the College of Charleston's," Myers said. "I want them all to text and call. I told them, 'I want to be invited to your weddings, know who your boyfriends are - and if they ask you to marry them, I want to approve.'"

Smith will continue coaching Lexington, contemplating a possible seventh consecutive title. And though Dunnagan will not be there, a part of her will be, he said.

Lauren Stephenson played No. 3 for the Wildcats this year as a 12-year-old seventh-grader. She is small at 4-foot-10 and 70 pounds - Dunnagan's nickname for her is "Fun Size," as in miniature candy bars - and relies on a wicked short game to offset her lack of length.

Sound familiar?

"I played with Maureen a lot," Stephenson said. "Seeing how well she played, how hard she practiced, made me want to practice more."

Did Dunnagan offer any parting advice? "She said most of the girls I'll play will be bigger than me, but not to let it bother me."

Next season, as a "worldly-wise" 13-year-old eighth grader, Stephenson said, "I'll play No. 1. That's settled." And a seventh title? "If I work harder, and all the others work harder ..."

As Dunnagan would tell her, it will be the best time of her life.

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