(Photo by Chris Pobst)
For the first time since 2003, the Sikeston Bulldogs will be sending four individuals to the Class 3 state golf tournament Monday at Rivercut Golf Course in Springfield.
Although they didn't officially qualify as a team following the sectional round, Evan Deere, Ben Murray, Kirk Hoggatt and Gabe Wheeler all played well enough to advance as individuals which gives them the right to play as a team as well.
"Even though they qualified as individuals, having their scores count as a team is a big honor," Sikeston golf coach Andy McGill said. "There's going to be 10 schools represented and to finish as one of the top 10 in the state is another big honor. That was one of our goals at the beginning of the year."
The only downfall to having just four golfers participate, which normally there would be five, is that every score counts. Scoring the team aspect requires taking the top four scores out of five to tally up a team's final score.
In 2003, Sikeston finished eighth as a team while in 2002 they ended in sixth place.
Although it's a challenge to win a team championship with just four players, it's not impossible. In fact, just last year, Pembroke Hill accomplished that same feat.
"We've been known to beat our own expectations," Deere said. "We know we're capable. I'm feeling pretty comfortable because I know we can do well as a team. If we play our game and not let the pressures get too much, we have a chance.
"We didn't even expect to get this far as a team. But, if we each play our own game, I believe we'll impress even ourselves."
Deere is by far the most experienced and accomplished golfer of the Sikeston four.
He is the first four-time state qualifier for Sikeston and has improved his scores every trip.
He finished 97th as a freshman, 59th as a sophomore and last season topped out at 22nd overall.
"Him being a four-time all-state qualifier is a big deal and he has big goals," McGill said. "He wants to be an all-stater and him having that experience makes a big difference."
The golfers who finish in the top 15 are given all-state honors. The last all-stater Sikeston produced was E.C. Atchison in 2004.
This year, Deere has aspirations of not only making all-state, but finishing in the top five.
"I haven't had too many awesome rounds until sectionals, but my swing is feeling great and I'm feeling really confident going in," Deere said. "I know I can place in the top five. That's definitely my goal this year."
Both Murray and Hoggatt are making their second trips to the state meet.
Murray finished 88th last year while Hoggatt tied for 100th in 2010.
"Ben's had an up and down season," McGill said. "He had a pretty good showing and he felt good about his swing at the district tournament."
For Murray, staying poised and consistent while not getting into his head will be the key to him improving on his finish from a year ago.
"I'm really just trying to play my best," Murray said. "I haven't had the greatest season. I really don't have anything to lose. I just want to go out and play my best.
"I just have to get my head straight, really. I've got to mentally get myself ready."
Making state his freshman year, Hoggatt missed the cut last season but rebounded this year.
"He gained a lot of experience even during his freshman year and unfortunately, he didn't play very well last year during sectionals," McGill said. "He learned from that."
Hoggatt may have found his stroke during the SEMO conference tournament in early May where he finished with a score of 77 which tied him for second overall.
"I think having that experience is going to make me not as nervous as I was freshman year," said Hoggatt. "It's still going to be a little nerve racking because it's state, but overall I think it will give me a slight advantage over some of the newer players."
Making his first trek to the state tournament, Wheeler has impressed most this season being only a freshman.
Wheeler has routinely been in the top 15 during a lot of Invitationals this season adding a lot of internal competition between the Bulldogs.
"He's a solid golfer, he works hard and one thing about Gabe is he's good about the mental game and you don't see that a lot out of a freshman," McGill said about Wheeler. "Even though he may hit a bad shot, he looks past it and goes to the next shot. His swing has been back and forth throughout the season but he's been a steady golfer throughout."
Coming in as a freshman, Wheeler was not expecting the success that he's had so far. Which may be the reason for it.
"I have the best teammates that have helped me a ton this year," Wheeler said. "Without them I don't know where I'd be right now. They're like five other coaches."
The freshman Bulldog knows its just his first year participating on the varsity level as well as making the trip to state. He's taking this experience, like many others he's had this season, as a chance to keep improving.
"It's my first year and I still have three more years of this," Wheeler said. "I just hope I take this, improve and get better and better and do the best I can up there."
Battling amongst themselves for position as the team's best golfer has certainly improved their individual games immensely.
"We're having to actually work harder and make us realize that we can continue to get better," Hoggatt said.
For the first time in recent memory the competition between the Bulldogs prompted Wheeler, the freshman, taking over Deere's No. 1 spot on the team.
"That hasn't happened in years," Deere said. "That's definitely helped the team overall. We're a lot more competitive and everyone is growing as a golfer, including me. I think it helped to push me, a lot."
The Bulldogs will try to medal on the 7,000-yard, 72-par course at Rivercut.
Deere will tee off on the first hole at 8:45 a.m. Teeing off on the 10th hole, Wheeler will start at 8:45 a.m., Hoggatt at 9:21 a.m. and Murray at 9:30 a.m.