Bearcats looking to change course history

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By John Herndon

As Will Carlton disembarked his golf cart at Wild Turkey Trace Golf Club last Thursday, his instruction to the local media was short and simple.

"After I make this birdie, I will be right back," the Anderson County High School boys' coach said.

Call it bragging. Call it luck after some smack talk. Call it what you want but the former all-state basketball player did what he predicted while playing a practice round with some of his top players.

Call it confidence to compete. And win.

Carlton has it in abundance when he talks about the 2008 Bearcats, who got their season underway Saturday in a tournament at Russell Springs. "This is not the most talented one," Carlton says when asked if this could be the best of his three Anderson teams. "But this is the deepest. I feel good, really, about (players) one through eight. We have six kids that have played in a regional tournament."

There is little doubt that Carlton believes his team has a real chance at making the program's first appearance at the state golf tournament since 1994, when he was a senior in high school. Carlton did not play that season, but had been to the state two seasons earlier.

Ask Carlton if he has a player that could compete for the individual regional championship, he's quick to say that he believes four - senior Graham Young and sophomores Jo Jo White, Jacob Flora and Marcus Lake could challenge for the big trophy.

But Carlton also knows Bearcat golf history. He's had high hopes the last two years only to see them dashed with sub-par performances at the regional tournament. "We didn't play well last year at the region," Carlton says.

Anderson actually had a good showing, placing ninth out of 22 teams last year at Dix River, but was well behind the two state qualifying teams. Carlton's analysis is simple.

"It wasn't first or second, so I don't care," he said. "The last two years, our collars got a little tight at the tournament."

Carlton tends to take the blame, citing a lack of tournament scheduling in 2006 and perhaps putting too much pressure on his troops a year ago, when the Bearcats went 66-65, counting all tournament finishes. In dual meets, Anderson went 16-11.

For 2008, he's working on the mental aspects of the game, down to not giving the team a day off last Thursday when the local course was soaked from the previous night's rain and cloudy skies indicated that more could be on the way.

"This makes you mentally tough," he explained.

But there are plenty of fun and games around the course with this group of Bearcats. "They have been playing together and playing with the locals all summer long," Carlton says.

"The golf course is our second home," adds senior Jade Martin. "We are out here all the time."

"These guys are the equivalent of gym rats," Carlton continues. "A lot of times, they play 18 holes in the morning and 18 in the afternoon. They are very close as a team."

But even though the team is close, there is a friendly competition for being the number one seed. As the season starts, that is White, who has made a meteoric rise in the three years he has been playing the sport. When the Bearcats had their first official practice on July 15, White shot a one-under 70 at the local course.

"He's been the most consistent early," Carlton says. "He shows what hard work can do."

But Young had the team's best score Saturday at the Russell County Invitational, firing a 76 while Lake and Flora could also be at the top at the regional tournament in late September.

"It doesn't really matter to me," Carlton says. "I think it is a pride thing with the kids and they all want to be number one."

If watching some of the Bearcats play the front nine at Wild Turkey Trace last week is any indication, the current group is very competitive. Even though it was a practice round, they grimace when a putt goes just right or left of the hole and they pump their fists after a good shot.

Young has consistently been one of the team's best performers the last three years while Lake and Flora showed enormous potential a year ago.

Martin made the regional team last year and senior Colin Bussell went last season, being bumped on the final day of the year.

Junior Dylan Riley was one of the junior varsity team's top performers last year and could also make a push for the regional spot while senior Steven Barch, a regular at the local course, is playing with the school team for the first time.

The Bearcats are driven by what they see as unfulfilled promise from a year ago.

"We had a bad day at the region," Young says.

"We had three freshman and Jade Martin that had never played in the region before. That was a big thing," Carlton remembers.

"It was different," Flora adds. "It was very nerve-wracking."

If his team attains the consistency he wants, Carlton likes his team's chances at the region, which will be held at Dix River, near Stanford, again. Anderson will be taking on a strong schedule, highlighted by hosting the Central Kentucky Conference tournament on Sept. 6.

"There is a good feeling about this team," Carlton says. "They have created a buzz among the local regulars here at the course.

"They can change the history of Anderson County golf."