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Kesti to play for the University of Nebraska-Omaha

Red Wing senior Katie Kesti stands with Wingers' head golf coach Mark Herzog after signing a letter of intent to play for the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Sinking a 15-foot birdie putt during the Minnesota Women's State Amateur Tournament in front of a college coach is one way to make an impression, and it certainly didn't hurt Red Wing senior Katie Kesti.

Kesti made an uphill putt on No. 15 at Hastings Country Club in the summer as Tim Nelson, the head women's golf coach for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, watched. Now she'll head to Omaha next fall as a member of the UNO women's golf team after signing a statement of intent last Wednesday at Red Wing High School.

"I wanted to fit well with the school and not just with the golf program," Kesti said. "That was one of the major deciding factors."

It was good Nelson didn't see the previous hole, she said, because that's where Kesti double bogeyed both days of the two-day tournament. Kesti finished the tournament at 23-over par and tied for 22nd.

Kesti became the second Winger to sign with a Division-I golf program in as many years. Last year Danielle Brooks signed with Drake.

Signing with a D-I school is a far cry from where Kesti started as a seventh-grader. Kesti hadn't played much golf and success came slowly, but steadily.

"When Katie came out she said she wanted to figure out this golf thing," Red Wing girls golf head coach Mark Herzog said. "By the end of seventh grade and summer she was starting to break 50."

Kesti had all the ingredients to becoming a good player even then, Herzog said.

"If they're good athletes and if they have a little bit of drive and they're competitive, they're going to get better," Herzog said.

As an eighth-grader Kesti shot 83 on the first day of the state tournament, but followed that with a 98. That marked the beginning of Kesti becoming a more consistent scorer and she started to excel.

"Herzog said I had a natural knack at it and my scores started dropping pretty quick," Kesti said.

As a freshman she continued to drop her scores, then as a sophomore she placed in the state tournament. Kesti usually shot around 88-89, Herzog said.

Last year Kesti really broke through and led the team in scoring average: 80-81 a round. She placed fifth in state with a two-day total of 159 as Red Wing won the Class 2A state title with an astonishing second-day score of 311.

The Wingers started the second day down a stroke to Detroit Lakes, but went on to win by 17 strokes. No Red Wing player shot worse than 84 and the top four scored no higher than 80.

Kesti, who played volleyball in the fall, participated in dance for a number of years before taking up volleyball and then golf. Her older brothers coerced her into sports after some ribbing.

"They told me I needed to play an actual sport," Kesti said. "I started playing volleyball and then they told me I needed to play a spring sport."

Kesti's choice for college wavered between Augustana in South Dakota and Nebraska-Omaha, but UNO won out after a campus visit in September.

Eight schools expressed interest in Kesti, she said, but she only really considered Augustana and UNO.

Kesti drew interest from UNO by a little self-promotion. Kesti emailed Nelson and several other coaches to gauge interest and played in more high-profile tournaments such as the state amateur and the Minnesota Women's Golf Association Match Play Championship during the summer to gain more exposure.

"I was always too scared to play with college players until this year but I had to force myself to do it to compare myself to other players," Kesti said.

On the course Kesti acts with tactical precision, Herzog said. She also maintains a tireless drive to improve every facet of her game. Kesti says her iron play is the strongest part of her game, but after much work her short game has improved dramatically.

"She's really improved her chipping," Herzog said. "In the past year, year and half, she's turned that into one of her strengths. She's really made herself into a really good chipper of the ball."

That desire to work on her weaknesses has led to consistent improvement, but it's also testament to her character. She's the type of player who will show up to practice in a stocking cap and choppers in the spring when the weather is miserable, Herzog said.

"I think it's part of her makeup," Herzog said. "When she puts her mind to wanting to succeed at something she's going to put the time in."

The time Kesti has put in has paid off in a big way and having the opportunity to play at the D-I hasn't been lost on her.

"I never expected it, I can surely say that," Kesti said. "I've played with (New Prague's) McKenzie Neisen (who finished fourth in the Class 3A state tournament last year) since ninth grade. I remember the girls saying in my group she's only a seventh-grader. I never considered I had a chance to play even D-III."