In a celebratory feat, the Essex High School boys golf team swung to a Division I state championship title last month.
Seniors Brody Yates and Ben LaPlant said they returned to the halls of EHS with striking support and congratulations from classmates. But out on the green, fewer hometown supporters cheered them on. In the local paper (this very one), only a graf in Joe Gonillo’s weekly sports column featured the big win.
Not exactly the roaring crowd a state soccer or hockey game attracts, or the photo spread the accolade merits, is it?
The lacking excitement almost comes with the territory of the sport: bleacher-less, quiet and geographically tough to attend.
But the boys accomplished something great. This year, golf moved from a spring to fall sport. They dedicated their summer months to the game, spending hours outdoors instead of their usual gymnasium-based preparation.
As practice conditions improved, so did their competition. Personal and team success was their motivation as they grew both their physical and mental stamina.
The real spotlight shone at the finals, the two golfers said. Up until that Oct. 11 day at Green Mountain National Golf Course in Killington, only scores from their sectional match — which advanced them to the states — mattered. The rest lay meek on old scorecards, tucked away as memories of personal achievement.
The lack of seeding is another reason people don’t always pay attention to the high school sport until the playoffs, the boys said. Yet to them, each stroke counts: They’re both interested in playing in college.
At sectionals, they tackled a tough course with confidence, head coach Justin Norris said. They zeroed in on their most notable opponents: Rutland and Champlain Valley Union.
While other teams lost players to graduation and fall sports, Norris said Essex developed a “deeper” lineup, with his top three guys breaking 80 on any given day. Yates and LaPlant made it to the finals each of their four years on the team, but said this season was their best chance to come out on top.
In the finals, Yates and Brennan Moreau notched a 78, leaving LaPlant at 83 and Sam Foster at 98.
Essex thrust into first place with a 337 total after Rutland committed a rules violation. It was an unfortunate way to win, Norris said, but a happy occasion nonetheless.
The day after they returned from Killington, an EHS assembly was scheduled: a perfect way to celebrate the team on a large scale, Norris said.
“There’s the stereotype that golf’s kind of boring; it’s an old man’s game,” Yates said. “But it’s changing.”
Nationally and internationally, many professionals are now peaking in their 20s, LaPlant added.
In town, Essex’s own professional golf star, Libby Smith, is creating opportunities for youngsters on the green at The Links at Lang Farm. Norris said this is an “invaluable resource.”
Smith, a 1998 EHS grad, played on the boys golf team before a girls group formed. She turned pro in 2004 and is now the links’ head golf professional. This summer, she saw 130 kids aged 7 to 12 at her junior camps and helped coach the two Hornet squads this fall.
Soon after, Smith received an honor as prestigious as her passion: In late October, Golf Digest ranked Smith the No. 1 golf instructor in Vermont.
Spreading her love for the game in her hometown is a blessing, she said, especially after 10 professional years on the road.
“What I hope to do is help people get better,” she said. “Simplify the game for them. Enjoy every minute; enjoy the game and process of improving.”
She watched the Hornets advance their game little by little this season. When Norris and assistant coach Gabe Coleman drove players to matches, Smith instructed the remaining players at the links, providing another layer to the program, Norris said.
According to Smith, golf is on the rise in Essex. While she agrees the sport lacks a fan-friendly environment, she said increased exposure will get more golfers out on the green — the first step to falling in love with it.
“That’s on us to get the message out there,” she said. “And highlight the achievements of these kids, and bring to light the work ethic they have.”
Part of that means embracing the individuality the non-mainstream sport presents.
“I like being alone on the course, having complete control over my game” LaPlant said. “Sometimes you’re fighting against the course, but I like getting focused on something that I can work toward.
“I wrote my college essay about it: How I can get lost in it,” she added.
In doing so, LaPlant tacks a particular motto in her mind, courtesy of former coach Kim Perry: “Take it one shot at a time.”