By MICHAEL BURWELL
Van Buren boys golf coach Eric Heitkamp faced a big challenge to start the season: don’t think too far ahead, especially with all five golfers from the 2016 Division III state runner-up team returning.
“That’s been difficult. I would be honest, that’s been a real challenge,” Heitkamp said. “It really has started even backing it down before one week at a time and one tournament at a time; we even focus on one shot at a time.
“I know that sounds kind of cliche, but really that’s all you can do. And yes, we hear a lot of talk, there’s that chatter in the back of your head, but really, we can’t control that. We can’t play defense in this game. We’re going to have to go out at the Scarlet golf course and stick to our gameplan, play our best rounds of golf we can and see where it puts us.”
After having another successful season that included Blanchard Valley Conference, sectional and district titles, Van Buren will look to win its third state title in school history (1984 and 1990). The Black Knights will be among 12 teams competing in the OHSAA Division III state tournament Friday and Saturday at the Ohio State University Scarlet Course.
Van Buren will begin Friday’s round at 9 a.m. on No. 1.
A year ago, Van Buren lost by just 10 strokes to Cincinnati Seven Hills at NorthStar in the state tournament.
The Black Knights were the only school without a senior in the lineup. So with all five players back, the excitement level to return to state and potentially compete for a state title was already brewing.
But, they still had to stay level-headed.
“We couldn’t get ahead of ourselves, we have to take one shot at a time,” Van Buren senior Hunter Foltz said. “You can’t think ahead, you can’t think back on negative shots. You have to stay in the moment and you just have to keep chugging away.”
Foltz and classmate Brandon Wehrle, who have been Van Buren’s Nos. 1 and 2 golfers throughout their entire high school careers, will get to compete in one last high school tournament.
It’s been an impressive run so far for the duo.
This season, Foltz and Wehrle helped Van Buren win at least a share of its 11th-straight BVC title, with the last three being outright. They also led Van Buren to its 14th straight sectional title and third-straight district crown.
Wehrle was the medalist at the Sycamore Springs sectional with a 2-under 70. Foltz was the medalist at the Stone Ridge district with a 2-over 74.
“What those two have meant to put into words is tough,” Heitkamp said. “They bring one thing that nobody sees and that’s leadership … They truly are leaders of our program and have kind of helped take this Black Knight program to a whole different level.”
Foltz and Wehrle have tournament experience at the Scarlet Course, a par-71 track that stretches to more than 7.400 yards from the back tees. Foltz finished tied for eighth individually at the 2015 state tournament, while Wehrle was tied for 12th.
“That course can play really long and when you get in that wrong spot in those bunkers, it’s really punishing,” Wehrle said.
“So we just need to keep it in play. If we get out of position, we just need to put it back in front of the green and bogeys are good on that course.”
Course familiarity is something both players said they can use to their advantage.
“It’s huge because some of these teams that we’re competing with have some young players on them and they necessarily might not know some of the tricks around the golf course like we do,” Foltz said.
The Black Knights’ game plan for the Scarlet Course will be a little different than what Heitkamp is used to. He said they will look to hit a lot of drivers.
“I’m a little more of a conservative coach, especially when we have multiple kids out there. But my feeling is that’s our biggest asset and that’s our best weapon is the way these guys hit the driver,” Heitkamp said. “They’re deep, they hit it a long ways, they’re very accurate with it so we’re going to go ahead and I guess essentially bomb away.”
Juniors Noah Frederick, Connor Ohlrich and Quentin Weddell each have had strong seasons for the Black Knights. Frederick earned BVC Player of the Year honors and finished tied for fourth at sectionals; Weddell fired a 75 to finish runner-up to Foltz at districts and Ohlrich’s 78 at Stone Ridge gave him a top-10 finish.
OTHER D-III NOTABLES: The 2016 team and individual champions will get a chance to defend their titles. Cincinnati Seven Hills, led by returnees Max Lane and John Stewart, finished second in the Southwest District tournament to earn a return trip to state. Columbiana’s Jared Wilson, who beat Arlington’s Cole Thomas by six strokes for medalist honors, is also back.
Overall, eight of the 12 teams from the 2016 state tournament return, including the top seven.
Division III State Tournament
AT OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY SCARLET COURSE
Worthington Christian, Strasburg-Franklin, Brookfield, Canton Central Catholic, Gates Mills Gilmour Academy, Van Buren (Hunter Foltz, Brandon Wehrle, Connor Ohlrich, Noah Frederick, Quentin Weddell), Kalida (Christian Nartker, Josh Klausing, Josh Recker, Luke Erhart, Alec Edelbrock), Ottawa Hills, Spencerville, Seaman North Adams, Cincinnati Country Day, Cincinnati Seven Hills.
Drew Salyers (Howard East Knox), Brevin Weaver (Sugarcreek Garaway), Jared Wilson (Columbiana), Jimmy Graham (Warren John F. Kennedy), Braden Smith (Smithville), Evan Heritage (Maumee Valley Country Day), Mitchell Miller (Woodmore), Aaron Belcher (Bluffton), Andrew Kuenzli (Riverdale), Elijah McCarty (West Union), Nathan Osborn (West Alexandria Twin Valley South), Avery Green (South Charleston Southeastern).