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Samantha Soulier photo

Waunakee junior Samantha Soulier earned Badger North player of the year honors after leading her team to the conference championship.

A year ago, Waunakee’s Samantha Soulier was just happy to be playing for the chance to advance to the WIAA individual state girls golf tournament.

What a difference a year has made.

Instead of being a wide-eyed sophomore surprised to be in her situation, Soulier is now one of the girls included in the short list of favorites to reach University Ridge Golf Course for next week’s state tournament.

But it’s first things first for the talented Waunakee junior, who leads the Warriors into a WIAA Division 1 sectional on Wednesday at Edelweiss Chalet Country Club in New Glarus.

Soulier earned Badger North Conference player of the year honors after leading her team to a runaway championship — the Warriors were unbeaten in dual-meet play and won the conference tournament by a whopping 30 shots.

Soulier shot 83 to lead the way for the Warriors, taking second individually.

Waunakee is seeking its first team state trip since 2011, but must navigate a loaded sectional that features powerful Middleton and a number of other quality teams.

Soulier is looking to make her first trip to state after missing in heartbreaking fashion a year ago. She finished her sectional round at Blackhawk Country Club tied with Stoughton senior Kelsey Taebel for the final state spot among individual qualifiers.

After making a 30-foot putt to extend the playoff to a second hole, Soulier ran into tree trouble and lost the playoff on the second hole.

But she didn’t leave the experience discouraged.

“On the first hole, going against a senior as a sophomore, I wasn’t expecting to be in that position,” she said. “I was focused on playing better for the seniors, because they wanted to go to state.

“Since I wasn’t really expecting to go as an individual, it was exciting to make it that far. But it put a drive in me to make it this year.”

Soulier has plans to play collegiately and has spent many hours during the past year working with Bill Kokott at Yahara Hills on many aspects of her skill set, including her short game and improving her mental approach.

“She works hard, and that’s one of her greatest assets,” Waunakee coach Paul Miller said. “She has the ability to go low and she’s just starting to put it all together.”

Soulier has been the top player this season and is the Warriors’ most tested and experienced.

The Warriors have received a big boost from a number of underclassmen, including freshmen Aly Kinzel, Elena Maier and Sydney Grimm as well as No. 2 player sophomore Brooke Ehle. The team has one senior in Olivia Carroll and another sophomore in Carsen Genda.

“We’ve rotated seven players with three (Soulier, Ehle and Kinzel) playing consistently,” Miller said. “It’s a real blessing to have that kind of depth.”