Girls Golfer of the Year: Gutierrez puts Seneca girls golf on the map

Gutierrez had consistently high finishes in nearly every tournament she played in during 2019 and led the Golden Eagles to a 9-1 record in the team’s first full season in the Olympic Conference.

Kayla Gutierrez was one of South Jersey’s top girls golfers in her first season at Seneca after transferring from Pinelands Regional High School. The junior had top-five finishes at both the Olympic Conference Tournament and LPGA Girls Golf Classic and lifted the Golden Eagles to a 9-1 record in the program’s first full season.

Seneca junior Kayla Gutierrez’s impact on the golf course in 2019 went well beyond long drives, clutch putting and birdies.

Gutierrez had plenty of individual success, from placing in the top-10 in many of the high school tournaments she played in to qualifying for the Tournament of Champions for a third consecutive year. However, Gutierrez was named South Jersey Sports Weekly’s Girls Golfer of the Year not just for what she did as an individual, but also for how she had a positive impact on a Seneca girls golf program playing its first full season in 2019.

“(Gutierrez) helped kick-start the program,” head coach Matthew Abate said. “Now, since we’ve had a lot of success, more girls are finding out about it and it’s going to help us in the future.”

Just as girls golf was new at Seneca this year, Gutierrez was new to Seneca. After her family moved in the offseason, Gutierrez transferred from her previous school, Pinelands Regional, to Seneca. At Pinelands, Gutierrez competed on a co-ed team with the boys and thought she would be doing the same at Seneca. When she connected with Abate and found out Seneca had a separate girls team, Gutierrez realized she was in for a new experience.

“I didn’t know about any of the teams we were playing against,” Gutierrez said. “I knew nothing. I must have talked Abate’s ear off in the beginning of the season asking him which teams we were playing and how we’d qualify and what I’d have to shoot.”

Kayla Gutierrez chips the ball out of the rough at the LPGA Girls Golf Classic at Old York Country Club in late April. Gutierrez was the second highest finisher from a South Jersey school at the event, shooting a 40 to finish in fifth place overall.

Gutierrez was the perfect fit on a team with a number of girls who were just getting their feet wet in golf. Gutierrez remembers what it’s like to first start out, having just picked up the sport prior to her freshman year of high school. Abate thought Gutierrez showed great leadership abilities as she helped many of her teammates improve their games.

“I just remember this one day we were on the chipping green,” Gutierrez said. “Everyone was around the green, chipping and I was in the sand practicing my sand shots. Everyone instantly came over and said, ‘I want to practice my sand shot.’”

“I was the only one getting the ball out of the sand trap,” Gutierrez continued, “We stayed there for 15, 20 minutes and I was trying to help them get the ball out of the sand trap.”

While Seneca had a number of players who were new to the sport, they did return one of South Jersey’s best golfers in sophomore Maddie Lawlor. Lawlor, who was coming off a breakout 2018 season as a freshman, hadn’t met Gutierrez prior to this year, but the two became close and together, were arguably the best one-two punch of any duo in South Jersey. The two were a huge part of lifting Seneca to a 9-1 season.

“As soon as we got paired together and played our match, we instantly clicked, “ Gutierrez said. “She won the conference tournament, which I was thrilled for her to win that. She got her scores down so much.”

Gutierrez wasn’t too shabby in the Olympic Conference Tournament either, finishing in third place behind only Lawlor and Cherry Hill West’s Katie Chase. At the LPGA Girls Golf Classic at Old York Country Club in late April, Gutierrez took fifth place and was the second highest finisher from South Jersey in a field featuring some of the top golfers from Central Jersey. On April 10, Gutierrez had another top-five finish in the Lady Bombers Invitational at Middlesex Golf Course. She shot a 77 that day, besting most of the players from the eventual Tournament of Champions winner, Montgomery High School.

“There’s a term in golf, range rat,“ Abate said. “She’s a range rat. She’s practicing all the time. She’s never satisfied. She’ll hit a 250-yard drive and she’s just never satisfied. Always wanting to be better is what sets her apart.”

After being the top finisher at Tournament of Champions from the South Jersey Sports Weekly coverage area, Gutierrez is now preparing for a busy summer. She plans to play in junior tournaments throughout the area with an eye toward playing in college and having more success in her final high school season next year.