By Trey Williams
The second-year Unicoi County Middle School golf program doesn’t appear to be on course for a sophomore jinx.
The Blue Devil boys were competitive against perennial power Liberty Bell on Thursday, March 5, at the Erwin Elks Course. Liberty Bell won 149-171 thanks, primarily, to medalist Matt Hogan’s 1-over-par 30, which was eight strokes better than anyone else.
Otherwise, Unicoi’s top four golfers and Liberty Bell’s next four were all within five strokes of one another.
“To play Liberty Bell that close as a team really shows where this program has gone in just over a year, basically,” said Unicoi coach Gene Renfro, the reigning TMSGA East Region coach of the year. “If we can compete with them we can compete with anybody.”
Hayden Hottinger led Unicoi with a 40. Cole Shelton (42), Luke Berry (44) and Caleb Peterson (45) also contributed to the Blue Devils’ team score.
Liberty Bell was aided by Will Wells (38), Cam Copenhaver (40) and John Davenport (41).
“I didn’t know what to expect (against Liberty Bell),” Renfro said. “You never know from year to year with middle school. We did have a home-course advantage. We weren’t on a big course or somewhere they were used to. Did that play a part in it? Maybe, but you still have to go out there and execute. …
“Those are the smallest greens we’ll play on all season. To hit those greens or get up and down – to shoot good scores there you have to have a good short game. And a good short game can carry over anywhere you go.”
Hottinger, Peterson, Berry and Kameron Bell are the experienced Devils.
“They all played last year and they’re all solid players and this is their eighth-grade year,” Renfro said. “So we’re expecting big things out of them. And all four of them shot better last Wednesday than they shot in any round last year at the Elks. They’re already ahead of where they were a year ago.
“So it’s just exciting to see how they develop over the course of this season. And it’s not that they shot badly last season, but that bar is set even higher now with that (performance).”
Shelton is a seventh grader, as is Jacob Peterson (no relation to Caleb). Brady Simmons, Leighton Woodby and Domynik Smith are sixth graders.
“All five of them are athletic kids and there is just a lot of potential there,” Renfro said. “They’re all out there competing for spots, because come district tournament, I can only take the top five boys. I like the way they’re competing and it’s making the whole team better.”
The girls team features significantly more inexperience. Marlee Cornett carded a team-low 49 on Thursday. Lily Hopson (50), Noell Farnor (53), Norah Ray (54) and Laney Rogers (55) weren’t far behind.
“They’re all developing their games,” Renfro said. “The good thing is all five of them have played or do play another sport. So they’re all athletes and their catching on quickly. And they’re listening and picking up on stuff so quickly
“And the pure excitement that they’re showing (is encouraging). Does everything go right all the time? No. But when it goes right you can just see the excitement on their faces. It’s that sense of accomplishment. All five of them have done things in the two dates that we’ve played – to varying degrees – and the light bulb has gone on for them.”
Unicoi will host Ridgeview on Thursday. Other remaining Erwin Elks dates are March 19 (T.A. Dugger), April 2 (Sevier, Robinson) and April 21 (Providence Academy).
“I’m grateful for the Erwin Elks letting us use their facility,” Renfro said. “They’ve been good to the middle school program and the high school program the last few years. They’ve been super-good to work with and very supportive of youth initiatives. And we’re working on an arrangement to utilize the Johnson City Country Club as well.”
The district tournament is scheduled for April 30 at Warriors Path. The top two teams and top two individuals not on those two teams will advance to the East Region May 12-13 in Dandridge.
“I believe we can compete,” Renfro said, “for one of the spots to qualify.