By G. Michael Graham
From the start, it seemed destined the Highlands Bluebirds boys golf team would make it this far.
But the Bluebirds still had to prove it on one day and it happened with an 8th Region championship a week ago shooting a 323 edging Grant County by a stroke at 324 at Pendleton Hills in Butler. Only the region champion qualified for state as a team unlike two years ago.
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That marked the second region championship in three seasons for the Bluebirds. Highlands won 10 tournaments this year including the region crown.
"This team has a lot of experience," said Bert Richey, Highlands Head Coach. "I hope we can draw on that experience the next two days. Your goal is to get through the first day and give yourself a chance during the second day. Hopefully, when we face a little adversity, we'll have played in enough tournaments to where they can draw on that experience and minimize their mistakes."
Tee time is 8 a.m. Eastern Standard Time at the familiar Bowling Green Country Club on Tuesday. The Bluebirds golfed there on Sept. 12 in the Bowling Green Invitational. The course is a par 72.
Richey said the course is Bermuda grass that is generally found in warmer southern states. Highlands does not play on many courses with this type of grass. The Bluebirds generally play on Bent or Zoysia grass.
"If you hit it in the rough, the ball sits down," Richey said. "You really need to keep it in the fairway and you have to keep it below the hole because the greens are really fast. If you don't have experience hitting out of it, it can be very challenging. It's thick. If you're in it, it's hard to stop your ball on the greens so we're going to have to keep it in the fairways. We're going to have to play smart. If you hit a bad shot, you're going to have to minimize the damage and go on."
Highlands has three players who have golfed in the top five since eighth graders. They are seniors Justin Gabbard and Luke Muller in addition to sophomore Joel Craft. The trio led the Bluebirds to an eighth-place finish at state two years ago with a two-day team score of 644.
"I feel we're going to try to play the best we can," Craft said. "I think that we can win (state). We're just going to go out there, play our games and see what happens. We've had enough rounds on that course to where we're confident on it."
Gabbard and Muller have golfed in three consecutive state tournaments. Gabbard's best finish at state came as a freshman in 2017 when he shot 150 to tie for 20th individually. Muller's best finish came last year when he shot 161 to tie for 22nd.
Highlands has two first-time golfers to the state tournament in junior Jack Schneider and eighth grader Hank Shick. Schneider returned after not golfing last year and helped the Bluebirds to all the tournament titles.
"They've played practice rounds the past two days," Richey said. "They've learned where to hit it and where not to hit it. All of them are going to be excited to play in the state tournament. We're just going to have to calm our nerves a little bit, go to work, follow our plan and play well."
Muller and Craft did not have the easiest times in their first state tournaments. Muller shot a 90 missing the cut as a freshman in 2017 and Craft shot a two-day total of 186 good for 82nd two years ago out of 83 golfers.
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The Bluebirds qualified for state finishing region runner-up in 2017. But only the top 12 teams made it to the second day and Highlands did not make that cut that season.
The Taylor County Cardinals return to state after winning it the last two years. Defending individual state champion Jay Nimmo, a senior from Marshall County out in western Kentucky, is also back as a senior. The Cardinals won it with a team score of 606 last year and Nimmo won the individual crown shooting a 141. Highlands faced the other 11 teams at the state tournament during the regular season.
Girls State Golf Information:
The two-day tournament for the girls is Friday and Saturday at Bowling Green Country Club. Highlands junior KJ Toole tees off at 10 a.m. EST on the 10th hole and senior Ellie Rowland golfs at 2:15 p.m. starting at the same hole.