2013 PREP GOLF PREVIEW: E'town shooting for another sweep (8/2)

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By Chuck Jones

Sweeping both the boys’ and girls’ region championships is becoming the norm lately and Elizabethtown is hoping to continue the trend this season.

After nearly a decade without a team accomplishing the feat, it’s happened three times in the last five years. Elizabethtown won the Boys’ 5th Region title and Girls’ 3rd Region crown in 2008 and last year. Central Hardin did the same in 2011.

Elizabethtown believes it can happen again this season as both teams enter the year as the region favorites. Could this be the Year of the Panther, Part II?

“It’s a great experience when both teams win region,” sophomore Lauren Hartlage said. “It’s great for the teams and the school. It’s really exciting and fun for both teams. It’s something special.”

The Panthers won last year’s region title by 11 strokes and they return senior Ryan Harris and junior Kyle Jury. Jury, last year’s Area Sophomore of the Year, carded a 77 in last year’s region tournament, while Harris had a 78.

Meanwhile, the Lady Panthers breezed to the region championship, winning by a staggering 46 strokes. Hartlage led the team by firing a 75, while sophomore Rebecca Black had an 84 followed by eighth-grader Sarah Hinton’s 97.

“It makes it nice when you can do that,” Elizabethtown boys’ coach Andy Games said. “There’s a good interaction between the teams. They practice together. They are friends. They want to see each other do well. They (the Lady Panthers) are legitimate contenders. They have what you need to win a region title and a state title. I see it as a good thing. They want to see their teammates win.”

Elizabethtown is coming off an impressive accomplishment last season. Both teams made the cut at the state tournament – the only school to accomplish the feat. The Panthers finished sixth and the Lady Panthers seventh.

“It’s really special,” Elizabethtown girls’ coach Kim Hartlage said. “For a small, independent school, that means something special. We’ve developed good programs and we’re proud of that. Seeing what Andy has done has been a great influence on me. You see that success and you want to emulate it. Now we both want to continue it.”

Games has led a resurgence for the Panthers. After winning the region in 2007 for the first time in six years, Games took over the following year, leading the Panthers to back-to-back region championships and a fourth-place finish at the state tournament in 2009. They were the region runners-up in 2010 and finished a disappointing fourth in ’11 before getting back to the top last season.

Harris credits Games for always having the Panthers prepared when the postseason rolls around.

“Coach prepares us each tournament to get us ready for the region tournament,” Harris said. “He’s always working on our swings, so whatever might be off is fixed and we’re used to it by the region tournament. It also helps having Kris Maffet. He works with us and helps us too.”

Games is counting on Harris and Jury to lead a young Panther squad. No other Panther has postseason experience. Junior Ian Mansfield, sophomores Javen Thomas and Nick Banks, freshmen Garrett Valentine, Ben Harris, Parker Haynes and seventh-grader Spencer Jury are candidates for the other three spots. Games said the competition has been tight.

“It’s been a good thing, because they are pushing one another,” Games said. “Ryan and Kyle are going to be one and two, but it’s very competitive from three to nine. That’s a good problem to have. We have strong leadership at the top and we have a lot of youth behind them. But they’re talented young players who are getting better.”

Although the Panthers will be inexperienced, Harris said that doesn’t change Games’ goals for the team.

“We are very young, but anything can happen,” Harris said. “We can be a strong contender, but we have to work hard and focus. It’s good to have that chip on your shoulder to push you to get better. We understand since winning last year what’s expected.”

The Lady Panthers know what’s expected as well. Since winning their first region championship since 2008, they are primed to be in contention for the next several years. But Kim Hartlage said last year was a good step for a young squad.

“The experience last year was new to all of them,” said Kim Hartlage, who took over the program the same year as Games. “Once they accomplished it, now it’s in the past. We’ve talked more about setting goals and accomplishing those goals. We’re setting our goals higher this year. They need to have a higher standard. They know what’s at stake and they need to have a different mindset than last year.”

Like the boys’ squad, the Lady Panthers will be relatively young this year, not in terms of experience but age. Winning last year’s championship, though, proved what they can accomplish.

“I think it gave us a boost to our confidence,” Black said. “We might be young, but it taught us we’re able to compete about quality teams. We haven’t announced any goals, but we have individual goals. When we get older, we’d like to win State, so we’re pushing ourselves to get better.”

Black and Lauren Hartlage are the team’s top two players, but the Lady Panthers are more than a two-woman show. Freshman Sarah Beth Hundley and Hinton both have region tournament experience, while junior Madeline Vittitow and sophomore Peyton Lothery have made huge strides since last season. The Lady Panthers will need it after graduating Ashley Hartlage and Mary-Chapin Snow.

Last season was the first year of high school golf for Black and Lauren Hartlage after coming over from St. James. Although both had played countless rounds, it was a new experience.

“There’s a big difference,” Lauren Hartlage said. “High school golf is team golf. It’s not about yourself, but helping the team. It’s not difficult, but it’s a different mindset. You have to do what’s good for the team. Winning (region) last year was a big confidence booster for us moving forward.”

Kim Hartlage said the big thing with younger players is becoming more consistent.

“Short game,” Kim Hartlage said of the team’s biggest improvement. “More than anything, the short game is the scoring part of golf. Chipping and putting is so important. We’ve become more consistent in that area, which should help us score better.”

Games challenges his team at the beginning of each year by selecting a team score before each tournament. He said right now that score is 320. Kim Hartlage points out the team scores from the top teams in the state to motivate her teams. It’s hard to argue with either tactic based on the results.

“Most of us are competitive,” Black said. “She tells us about teams doing better than us and it makes us work a little harder. That helps our game get better. We don’t want to lose. We’re too competitive.”

Too competitive? There’s no such thing. It’s that drive and determination that put them on top of the region last season and the two teams hope to remain there this year.

Chuck Jones can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.