DAILY JOURNAL SPORTS CORRESPONDENT
The Center Grove boys golf team is not letting recent accolades become a snare in its quest for a state championship.
Having recently climbed from No. 3 to No. 1 in the Indiana High School Golf Coaches Poll, the Trojans have turned heads around the state with consistently good play and a pair of especially convincing performances.
First, the Trojans smashed the tournament record at the Hall of Fame Tournament in Peru, beating runner-up Carmel by 11 shots. Then, at their own Trojan Classic, they didn’t just win the tournament, they obliterated the rest of the nine-team field by 26 shots at Hickory Stick Golf Club.
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That’s all well and good, said Center Grove coach Jim Williams. He wants players to enjoy being noticed, but he doesn’t want them to develop any kind of satisfaction.
To help get that point across, he brought in former Indiana University basketball All-American and area resident Ted Kitchel to speak to his team last week after the No. 1 ranking came out.
Kitchel told the Trojans to consider the honor in the context of their higher goals for the season.
“Ted reminded them that it’s where they are in June that matters as far as high school players are concerned, not where they are in April,” Williams said.
That’s the message Williams has been preaching as well as he tries to downplay the significance of the ranking. He reminds players that Center Grove has been at the top of the poll before, most recently in 2003. The team has not, however, won a state championship, and this is the goal.
Williams also points out that the ranking won’t help anyone hit a golf shot. He doesn’t regard being noticed a bad thing, noting that it can help bring some confidence in affirming that the team has the talent to play with anyone in the state.
But he recognizes some potential negatives and wants to avoid those.
“I don’t want them to get cocky and forgetting what they’ve done to get to this point,” Williams said. “I also don’t want them to get too nervous and start playing not to lose rather than playing to win.”
Williams is confident one of the Trojans’ main strengths, experience, will help them avoid those pitfalls. The Trojans have 10 varsity-caliber players, he said.
That means every day there is competition for one of the five varsity slots Williams has to select before every match or tournament. Williams is a big believer in letting performances dictate that selection. So he keeps a running five-round average of each player’s score over 18 holes, including practice and tournament rounds.
The five players with the lowest average are the five who are selected.
And that quintet has changed over the course of the season, which is a big reason why Williams doesn’t worry about overconfidence. Each player knows he has to stay sharp just to make the varsity lineup from match to match.
“They are wary of how good their teammates are, and they know they have to perform all the time,” Williams said. “There’s no down time, not even in practice.”
Seniors Christopher Heck and Austin Crowder are two leaders, but so are fellow seniors Zach Carrabine, Hayden Martin and Ben Surface.
Martin recently posted a medalist score in an invitational at Floyd Central. He said this year’s team depth is making a difference in quality.
“We’ve had a good team the past couple of years, but this year’s more so than the others,” Martin said. “There are nine or 10 guys averaging in the 70s, and it’s a competition every day just to be in the lineup.”
Martin said while the competition for varsity spots is intensely serious, it hasn’t strained the sense of team spirit Williams has worked to build with the group.
“There’s the edge of competition, but at the end of the day, those who are not in the top five go out and cheer for those not in,” he said.
Williams is cognizant that inter-team competition can potentially disrupt chemistry, but so far players have rallied around one another, even as they try to secure the coveted varsity slots. Williams tries to encourage a fraternal spirit with fun events, like a best-ball tournament and team get-togethers. Senior Austin Crowder mentioned that the group likes to play pickup basketball together away from the golf course, another team-building exercise.
Other varsity contenders are juniors Tyler Rankel and Jack Williams and sophomore Ethan Shepherd and freshmen Noah Gillard and Sam Jean.
Gillard has been among team leaders in scoring this spring and qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in Texas last summer as a 14-year old. Jean recently fired a 74 to help the team win the Floyd Central event, which pitted the Trojans second unit (for that weekend) against full varsity teams at other schools.
Shepherd said the team manages to balance the internal competition with a sense of team spirit.
“Our whole team knows we’re really deep,” Shepherd said. “We all want (to play varsity), but we don’t hope anybody does badly. We have each other’s backs.”
Carrabine noted that the competition for slots helps players feel a part of the team’s success, even if they don’t happen to be in the starting five on a given day, since the challenge from within helps keep each player to be at his competitive best.
Heck echoed his coach and teammates in saying the ranking pales in comparison to the team’s goal of winning the state title in June, but allowed that he was gratified to see the Trojans at the top of the poll.
“I’ve always checked every week since my freshman year to see where we were and who was No. 1,” he said. “I remember we would be just honorable mention or something, so it’s funny to see Center Grove finally reach No. 1.
“It’s nice but we have to keep that going and peak at the right time.”
“It’s cool to have kids around school say that they saw you were No. 1, but it doesn’t matter if you are one or 10 if you don’t win the state tournament,” he said. “Hopefully we’re number one after that.”
INDIANA HIGH SCHOOL GOLF COACHES ASSOCIATION POLL
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