Four boys golf teams in Section 1-AA battling for two playoff spots

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Sunday, September 10, 2017 | 11:03 PM


Hal Biehl didn't hazard a guess about how the second half of the Section 1-AA boys golf race would play out.

Doing so would seem a fool's errand anyway. With a handful of matches remaining for each team, St. Joseph, Freeport, Burrell and Riverview are battling for the section's two automatic playoff berths with little daylight between them.

“To be honest with you, I don't even know what the records are in the section, and the kids really don't, either,” said Biehl, Riverview's longtime coach. “They know from experience from last year what kind of teams (the others were) … and they're just going day-by-day.” The season has featured school-record scores, rain-suspended playoffs and several matches decided by a handful of strokes.

Last week alone saw Freeport, the two-time defending section champion, drop matches on back-to-back days to Burrell and St. Joseph, and Riverview beat Burrell in a sudden-death playoff that began in late August at Oakmont Country Club and got suspended for rain and darkness before getting decided Friday at Saxon Golf Course.

“There's a lot of parity in the section this year, as is pretty evident,” Freeport coach Joe Sprumont said. “The teams in our section, Burrell and St. Joe's and Riverview as well, have all had good teams that have been improving the last year or two, a lot of underclassmen. We kind of saw this coming. It's shaping up to be a great race.”

The top four will hold something of a round robin Monday, with Freeport (6-3, 5-2) hosting Riverview (4-3, 4-2) at Buffalo Golf Course and St. Joseph (6-0, 5-0) traveling to face Burrell (3-3, 3-3) at Hill Crest Country Club.

St. Joseph is looking to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence. Freeport is seeking to extend its five-year postseason streak. Burrell qualified for the playoffs last season after its second-place section finish. And Riverview last made the postseason in 2008, when the Raiders finished as Class AA runner-up.

“It's nice to have a few teams that it's going to be close,” Burrell coach Joe Virone said. “For me sitting there, it makes it a little anxious knowing it's going to be a close match. And the kids know that a few teams in our section are going to be tough matches. I think it helps. It makes the kids realize that every shot's going to count.”

Several factors combined to make this race so tight. First, Freeport graduated deep senior classes each of the past two seasons. Morgan Penn is the Yellowjackets' lone senior and Freeport's No. 1 player. Junior David Gaspersic is No. 2, and Freeport's strong junior varsity program is supplementing the roster.

St. Joseph, the section leader, has a core of six senior starters led by Derek Petrishen, and coach Al Vitelli said the entire group worked on improvement.

“They've really matured into fine young men who can play golf,” Vitelli said. “It's really great to see. I saw them come in as freshmen, struggle and play, and get lessons, work hard at it. They've really come a long way.”

The largest team in recent memory is boosting Riverview. The 18 players represent the most in Biehl's decade-plus with the program, with many of them underclassmen who continue to improve.

“They take the game serious, but not too serious,” Biehl said. “They play day-by-day, course-by-course and see how it plays out.”

Junior Tiger Hubbard and sophomore Marcus Pinchok lead Burrell and are complemented by players such as Nathan Smith, Nathan Morow, Logan Schoepf, Marshall McKallip and Ethan McMeans. The Bucs had their strongest two days of the season last week, with a team score of 212 against Valley on Wednesday followed by a 214 in the victory over Freeport on Thursday.

“We really turned it on (last) week,” Virone said. “They really played well.”

The second half of the section schedule holds plenty of intrigue. St. Joseph, which beat Burrell in the teams' first meeting behind a round of 212 — the lowest in program history at home course Brackenridge Heights — played the other top three teams at home in the first half of section play, so the Spartans must hit the road to play all three in the second half.

“I think my kids are going to rise to the occasion. I can sense the excitement. I really can. I can sense their individual desire”

Riverview and Burrell will meet again Tuesday at Hill Crest Country Club, hoping for a shorter match, and Freeport will look to bounce back from its rare two-match losing streak.

“A saying that our team's had for years is you can't play defense in golf,” Sprumont said. “You can't game-plan against someone else. Sometimes you just get outplayed. If the other team just plays better, there's nothing you can do.

“It's fun and exciting being front row and seeing great competition and see great play from the players on all these teams. It's kind of the essence of high school sports, seeing players competing in the moment and enjoying it. Our players put the work in and get themselves ready to that point where there's not much for a coach to do.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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