Merely a blip among a sea of black and white uniforms making their way to eighth period, Celia Kuenster toted her overstuffed backpack through a hallway at Cretin- Derham Hall High School virtually unnoticed last week. Just the way she likes it.
"I like blending in," the sophomore said with a shrug. "My friends know I golf, but that's about it. I don't like talking about it."
So much so that the teenager who became the first freshman to finish atop the Class 3A tournament last June didn't even mention golf at her orientation meeting to start the school year, even though it happened to be with Cretin-Derham Hall science teacher and girls' golf coach Chad Anderson.
"I tried to pitch robotics like I do to every eighth-grader," he said. "I had no clue who she was."
She is, these days, on the rise as one of the stars in the local golf community. She won two state amateur women's events last year. She will play Friday as the only woman in an exclusive Minnesota golf champions event at the Minneapolis Golf Club.
"I never thought it would get to this level," Kuenster said. "Well, I thought it but I didn't say it ever."
Says her swing coach, Troy Burne assistant pro Brent Snyder: "I've taught some amazing, amazing players and I could go another career without having another Celia."
'No doubts in my head'
Kuenster shot a 1-under-par 72 at the Forest Lake Invitational for her first varsity victory last spring. She went on to be co-medalist with Stillwater's Cassie Deeg in the Class 3A tournament, becoming the first freshman from the large-school division to finish at the top.
She followed up that rare feat with summertime victories in the Minnesota Junior Girls' and Women's Amateur events. She won the latter by a whopping seven strokes, destroying a field of the best female players in the area with a final day 1-under-par 72, the only red number of the three-day event. At the age of 15 years, four months and 17 days, she was the youngest winner in the event's 40-year history.
Fresh off signing her greatest scorecard yet -- her driver's license last month -- Kuenster still nitpicks her groundbreaking 54-hole aggregate score of 1-over-par 220 in the Women's Amateur at Hastings Country Club.
"It could have been a lot lower," she said. "But that whole week there were no doubts in my head."
Power, accuracy, smarts
Across Hamline Avenue from Cretin-Derham Hall, Casper's and Runyon's Nook pays homage to some of the best athletes to wear Raiders purple and gold -- Mauer, Molitor, Birk -- with burgers bearing their name.
Kuenster could be the next, especially if her goals pan out.
Before that burger becomes reality -- she'd prefer plain, stuffed with cheese and no bun -- there is "college and then to the [LPGA] Tour," she said. "And winning. Winning is just fun."
Snyder calls his student of three years an "almost awkwardly fierce competitor. The mental strength and how she handles herself around a golf course is so different than many other young women."
Kuenster has the power.
"I was 70 yards past my playing partner off the tee," she said after a Suburban East conference match last week.
She has the accuracy.
"I could put a 10-gallon bucket out there and she'd hit it," Anderson said.
She knows the game intimately.
"Meant to have a golf club in her hand, no doubt about it," Snyder said.
The emergence of raw talent at such a young age is rare. Her teammates see it up close.
"She's very laid back when she's playing. Calm, and clearly having a lot of fun," junior Sarah Haley said. "What really sticks out to me is I've never seen her have a bad round -- and her 'bad rounds' are better than my good rounds. It's fun to watch her play."
She is the youngest state champion since Katie Detlefsen won the first of her four consecutive Class 1A titles at Minnehaha Academy from 2004 to '07.
Comparisons have been made to former LPGA major champion Jody Rosenthal, who won three consecutive state championships at Hopkins Eisenhower/Lindbergh after taking the 1978 Women's Amateur, the youngest winner until Kuenster came along last July.
"I can't go to a tournament, and my golf community is large, without having to talk about her," Snyder said.
'Better than the boys'
Her competitiveness started early, born 7 minutes before twin brother Will. Along with two older siblings, the battles bled onto the driveway basketball court and into the backyard.
"There was always a winner and always a loser," Ellen Kuenster said of her children's games. "And you could always tell who it was."
Celia and Will found their way to a par-3 course near their Mendota Heights home in grade school. Both took to the sport, and continue to drive older sister Megan, a senior, nuts with the Golf Channel playing round the clock at home.
Celia was an exceptionally quick learner.
"She was the only one of her friends who would play all nine holes," Ellen Kuenster said. "One nice lady we always saw said Celia had the best swing out there, better than the boys."
She was invited to the three-day Minnesota Golf Champions event beginning Friday at Minneapolis Golf Club, an event hosted annually for winners and high-placing finishers of major Minnesota tournaments held the previous year.
That Kuenster was the only female to accept an invitation to the 72-player field of professionals and amateurs is not a concern.
"These are the kind of events that can help you so much," she said matter of factly.
Tradeoffs to compete
To participate, Kuenster needed approval by the Minnesota State High School League. Bylaws say high school athletes cannot compete in outside events in their sport during the season without permission. For each round she plays, she must forfeit a round with her Cretin-Derham Hall team to stay at the 16-match limit in-season.
"It's a bummer," Kuenster said.
MSHSL Executive Director Dave Stead said: "Most players really hone their games in the summer. Just because someone is a really good golfer or can afford other things, we don't allow them to play in more [events during the school year]."
One of the Raiders' matches Kuenster will sit out is May 21, when she travels to Fontana, Wis., for U.S. Women's Open local qualifying. She will then aim for a second consecutive trip to state a week later at the Class 3A, Section 4 meet at Tanners Brook in Forest Lake.
And from there?
"At some point I hope I get to carry her clubs for her at a charity event when she's a pro," Anderson said. "There are times you're on a course with her and you just go, 'Wow.'"