Bert Richey took over as head coach before last season and has begun implementing solid foundations for success for the Highlands Bluebirds golf team.
It paid immediate dividends as Highlands performed well in match play going 10-1-1 on the season. The Bluebirds also finished runner-up in a few tournaments and in the top three in a few more.
Unfortunately, the youth and inexperience caught up to the Bluebirds in the 8th Region Tournament at Laurel Oaks in Maysville. Highlands finished with a total score of 341 and did not have any individuals qualify for state. The top two teams and top three individuals on non-qualifying teams make the state tournament. Teams play nine holes in matches and 18 holes in tournaments.
"This year, we're playing in more tournaments," Richey said. "(Highlands Director of Athletics) Matt Haskamp's allowed us to play in a few more so that's going to help our kids gain experience so that when we get to the post-season, we'll have a better chance to feel more comfortable and have success at the regional tournament."
Bishop Brossart won the 8th Region shooting a 314 led by medalist Joey Ampfer's 71 score. Only five players shot in the 70s on the tough course on a windy day. Grant County finished runner-up shooting a 330 to go back to state. Louisville St. Xavier wound up winning its state-record 21st state championship last year including the last three seasons.
"Almost all of the teams that qualified for state last year out of our region were upperclassmen," Richey said. "They were seasoned more than our younger kids and they did much better. The big thing is to not be emotional when you play. Kids that have played in more tournaments don't get rattled as easily. If you have a few bad shots, you can gather your composure and get it back on the right track then try to spring some pars together. If you start forcing it on the golf course, a lot of times you put yourself in a bad position and you won't be able to perform as well. When you play in a lot of tournaments, chances are you will know how to handle situations better and be able to control your score."
Like on the professional level, courses have their physical challenges. That includes bodies of water, rough patches and trees.
"I tell them to try to make sure they play away from trouble," Richey said. "Avoid the big numbers and at the end of the day, your score will be competitive. Don't take a chance unless you absolutely have to take a chance."
Highlands graduated three seniors from last year. They are Brian Schoepf, Tyler Spicer and Matthew Crockett. The two seniors in Jackson Recht and Aaron Verst have taken command of the leadership roles.
"As people probably know, our team is very, very young," Verst said. "(Myself), Jackson and some of the juniors are trying to step up, take charge and make sure the younger ones are learning fundamentals and getting a lot of good baselines (for success) down so they can develop into better golfers and ultimately bring the team to grow stronger in years to come."
But the Bluebirds return all five players that played in the region tournament last year. They are led by freshmen Justin Gabbard and Luke Muller. The duo also helped the Highlands Middle School team win a state championship last fall. Gabbard led Highlands shooting an 82 in the region tournament last year.
The other three returning players that played in the region tournament last year are Verst and juniors Ryan Leigh and Steven Grimme.
Eleven players see action in varsity tournaments in matches. Richey said three more players could challenge to play in the region tournament. They are Recht, junior Brady Walz and seventh-grader Joel Craft.
"Aaron and I, the two seniors on the team have put a lot of emphasis on etiquette and doing a lot of work on putting," Recht said. "We've been having putting games to help some of the younger guys improve on the greens. We have a lot of seventh, eighth-grade and freshmen players that will be playing big roles for us down the stretch. We're just trying to get those guys ready for big matches and tournaments."
The Bluebirds play in five tournament in five days starting Sunday in the Pendleton County Invitational at the Northern Kentucky Golf Club in Butler. It starts at 2 p.m. Highlands concludes that run in the Bourbon County Invitational at Houston Oaks in Paris on Thursday. Houston Oaks is the site of the 8th Region Tournament on Sept. 25 this year.
Fort Thomas Matters Sports: 2 17 Highlands Bluebirds Golf Preview