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The Langley golf team has picked up this season right where it left off last fall, when it captured its first state title since 2001. Returning five of six starters from last year’s squad, the Saxons won three 18-hole preseason tournaments in August and completed the regular season Wednesday with a 6-1 record.

Yet Langley is not the team with a direct path to the Northern Region Tournament from the Liberty District.

That distinction belongs to Madison, which defeated Fairfax Wednesday to cap off a perfect 6-0 record that grants them peace of mind heading into next week’s district tournament at Herndon Centennial Golf Course. Though Langley still can emerge from that tournament as one of two Liberty District teams to qualify for regionals, Madison can approach the tee box next week knowing its first-place regular season finish earned it the district’s lone automatic qualifying spot into regionals.

The Warhawks reached this point on the wings of a relatively inexperienced lineup brimming with talent. Three underclassmen grace Madison’s typical starting six, while Ryan Smith remains the only senior holdover from last year’s lineup.

“We’ve always been a really good team with a lot of talent, but I feel like this year is our best chance to go far,” Smith said. “Even though we don’t have as much experience on this team, we have a lot more talent. We’re also deeper than we’ve been in years past. We have more people that are capable of posting low numbers.”

The loss of some key seniors was alleviated this season in part by the arrival of Amber Liu, a freshman who had broken 40 in every nine-hole match of the season until she shot a 40 against McLean on Monday. Liu has partnered with one of the region’s top female golfers from last season, Shannon Brooks, to give Madison a dynamic duo that can go toe-to-toe with any group in the area. Brooks led the Warhawks as a freshman last year with scores of 75-74 to earn a fifth-place individual finish in the district tournament and help the team qualify for regionals.

Brooks’ and Liu’s chemistry on the course is the product of having played together for several years. Liu participated in her first-ever golf tournament about five years ago alongside Brooks, and they’ve been strengthening their bond ever since. When Madison coach Derrick Rauenzahn approached the two at the beginning of this season, he wondered whether their competitive natures would make it easier for them to play matches in separate groups. The girls, however, assured him that they would perform best side by side.

“It’s kind of comforting,” Liu said. “I’ll walk up to the same tee as her, and you have someone to talk to, especially on the same team you can discuss shots and distances.”

Rauenzahn marvels at the girls’ consistency when it comes to hitting fairways and greens, but he has been more impressed with the maturity that keeps them unruffled under pressure.

“They’re very successful on the golf course, and they’re great people off the golf course,” Rauenzahn said. “They both are very similar in that they just don’t make mistakes... They’re both very competitive, but in a good-natured way. They wish for each other to make the putt, and then they want to make it as well.”

The graduation of Robbie Hecht and other key contributors to last year’s squad left a leadership void that has been filled this season by every member of the team rather than just one or two seniors. Liu and Brooks are expected to pull their weight just like Smith and junior Won Suk Rhee. Rauenzahn demonstrates his equal faith in those players by de-emphasizing the importance of starting order; Liu and Brooks might go off at the No. 3 and 4 spots one day and then No. 1 and 2 the next. Rauenzahn even held back on selecting a captain this year, instead encouraging every member of the team to lead by example.

“They just kind of have duties,” Rauenzahn said. “I assign someone to do one thing and someone to do another thing. I divvy out responsibility so the burden doesn’t just fall on one person.”

With the two-day district tournament set to begin Wednesday, all eyes will turn to Madison and Langley to see which side looks primed for a deep playoff run this year. The two teams have been neck and neck this season, with Madison averaging a team score of 155.5 compared to Langley’s 155.4 in nine-hole matches. The Warhawks got the better of the defending state champs in the teams’ first match of the season, edging the Saxons 152-153 at Army Navy Country Club last month behind a pair of 37s from Liu and Brooks.

Yet Madison needs to be particularly wary of its Liberty District foe heading into the postseason, since Langley tends to alternate its rotation during the regular season before unleashing its A lineup in the playoffs.

“I would absolutely say that Langley is still the favorite going into a 36-hole event,” Rauenzahn said. “We did beat them for nine holes, but nine holes does not win you a district championship. Until someone beats Langley for 36 holes, they’re still the district champions.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com