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Youthful experience leads golf team

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By Kristin Beck

After a summer of practicing and playing pick-up games with friends, the Panthers golf team is ready to take on the competition. 

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Looking at the roster, the team may be young – the Panthers have just two seniors, Nick Aulbach and first-year player Gabe Kates – but it is full of talented players, head coach Josh Mefford said.

Juniors Levi Stephenson and Clint Burgess have been on the golf team for a few years and have really improved over the summer. Mefford said Stephenson is playing some of his best golf right now, hitting the ball well and finishing in the upper 30s on nine holes. The home course move from General Butler State Resort Park to Fairway Golf Course in Wheatley, has benefited Burgess, who lives nearby and knows the course “like the back of his hand,” Mefford said.

Eighth grader Blake Belcher debuted for the varsity Panthers last season and will only get better over time, Mefford said. Newcomers Jackson “Boo” Donahue, Justin Ray and Bryan Taylor are new to the Panthers’ team, but are experienced golfers.

The Panthers will play home matches at both Fairway and Perry Park Golf Resort, and the team has been practicing this summer at Fairway. Mefford said Butler “spoiled us” because they let the team play whenever they wanted and there is more scheduling involved at Fairway. But overall, “I love the actual course itself; the driving range, 18 holes,” he said. As the home team, the Panthers will decide if they want to play the front nine or the back nine – unless the course is busy that day – and both teams will play the same holes.

“With the driving range, you can sit down and work with a kid and fix little things,” he said.

With one year of coaching golf under his belt after years of coaching baseball, Mefford said he learned to schedule more matches this season “so we can get more experience in for Class A, conference and region.”

Included in this year’s schedule is a tournament hosted by Grant County on Sept. 21 at Eagle Creek Golf Resort. Mefford said he did not know which teams will compete, but that several teams will be different opponents than already on the schedule. He hopes to schedule another tournament before the season is over.

Mefford said he has really leaned on the parents of his players, like Tom Belcher – Blake’s dad – who takes a lot of lessons and has helped Mefford out a lot. “He’s a golf guru,” Mefford said of Belcher. “He plays all the time.”

The team also has benefited from Fairway’s PGA pro Gilbert England, who also is Burgess’ grandfather.

“Gilbert is great,” Mefford said. “He’ll help the kids as much as he can. He allows us to practice as much as we can, real flexible.”

Team goals for the season include winning the Class A, an 18-hole tournament Aug. 27, at Sugar Bay Golf Course in Warsaw because the majority of their competition plays in it. Winning the tournament could be a giant stepping stone for the team, Mefford said, and make them better prepared to take on larger schools.