It was quite a wild ride for Strasburg junior Calvin Willis during the Div. III district golf tournament at River Greens Golf Course on Monday, Oct. 2.
Willis’ Tigers fired an incredible score of 307 to capture the district crown and advance to state for the second consecutive year. He also won the tournament medalist crown in a play-off with teammate Mike Neidenthal and was nearly buzzed by an angry sparrow hawk that must have taken exception to him being somewhere near its nest.
No, this was a day that Willis will not soon forget.
“That was crazy,” Willis said of the sparrow hawk attack that saw playing partner Rendall Weaver scream as the hawk attacked. “It was right at my ankles. It freaked me out, and I blasted my putt about 15-feet past the hole.”
Willis’ 76 came courtesy of a lengthy birdie putt on the final hole as he rolled in a winding downhill 20-footer. That tied him with Neidenthal, who also birdied the final hole by stoning his approach shot and rolling in a sturdy birdie putt that slammed into the back of the hole.
As the two teammates headed out for the play-off, Neidenthal hit his approach shot just over the back edge on hole one, and Willis calmly stepped up and drilled his approach shot to within 15 feet. Knowing Willis was tight, Neidenthal tried to stick a tricky chip close, but once his ball hit the downslope, it slid off the edge of the green onto the fringe. He knocked his return shot up to within two feet, but knowing he only needed a two-putt to win, Willis rolled his birdie putt to within inches, making for an easy tap-in.
Willis has been on fire over the season’s final month, and he said the turnaround has come with a little bit of maturity.
“I’ve just been keeping a good attitude,” Willis said. “I had kind of a bad attitude during the year, and I knew it was time to lose that and start playing good for my team. Because for all of us, it’s about getting back to state.”
Last year Willis missed playing on the Tigers’ third-place state team by one-tenth of a stroke on his average, which has spurred him to work all that much harder to take advantage of the opportunity when it came this year.
“This summer was a lot different for me,” Willis said. “I really had to push myself so I would be the one playing instead of watching.”
While Mike Neidenthal and Willis were low men on the day, their two teammates were not far behind. Number-one man Dylan Tucker overcame a tough front side to shoot a 77 while Mitch Neidenthal, the Inter-Valley Conference Player of the Year, shot a 78. Ethan Creagan shot a 91 to round out the Tigers’ scores.
The 307 shows just how good this Tigers team is, and after placing third last year at state in a two-day tournament that saw them post the weekend’s best single day score on day two, the Tigers are ready to roar back to Columbus to tackle the Ohio State University’s Scarlet Course.
“After last year we didn’t have a great run at state,” Tucker said. “We finished seventh on the first day and managed to come back, but we know we could have played so much better and didn’t, and that really motivated us for this year to push ourselves even harder, and I think that showed throughout this year. We are excited going into next year, and we think we have a good chance to win it.”
For Mike Neidenthal, there was a fear about a month ago that he wouldn’t be playing at state at all. The junior severely sprained his ankle early in the season, and there was a question as to whether he would even get back at all.
He did and has been playing well ever since.
“It feels great to even have this opportunity,” Mike Neidenthal said. “We’ve been dreaming of this since last year ended, and I wasn’t sure after the ankle injury that I’d even be able to get this chance. I really thought that when it happened I was done. But we feel like we can really do well this year because having that experience last year really helps us.”
Mitch Neidenthal has been a picture of consistency all season. He has continually tossed up fantastic numbers, has been low man in a number of tournaments and his play has made him one of the top players in the area.
His 78 was tied for fourth at districts, and when you shoot a number like that and coach Troy McClellan says it was a sub-par performance, it goes to show what a high level of play he is at this season.
“A 78 kind of feels like an 86 from my freshman year right now,” Mitch Neidenthal said. “But I’ll take it any day if we keep playing the way we are as a team. We fully expect to go down to state, compete and win it. We know that we have the potential to do something pretty awesome.”
With four players who can put up low numbers, the Tigers know they can pick each other up if someone struggles. Creagan, a junior who is only in his second year of playing golf, said he knows his role is to be there and to put up acceptable numbers should someone falter.
“I’ve learned a lot from these guys in a short time, and that has definitely made me better,” Creagan said. “It is going to be awesome to go to state, but I know I have to pick it up even more just in case.”
McClellan said this group knows what it can do, and it is simply a matter of going to state and performing well. The sky is the limit for a team that proved last year during round two at state that they can be a very dangerous group.
With a great core group of players back from that team and another year of experience, the Tigers are looking to pounce at state and bring home something special.