NORWALK — Lexington’s Kaleb Smith credited his iron game for winning medalist honors in Wednesday’s Division I sectional golf tournament at Eagle Creek. But he wasn’t talking about iron in the usual sense.
“Honestly, I can’t stress this enough, that it was me hitting the weight room,” he said after firing a two-under 69 to lead the Minutemen to sectional runner-up honors. “Using my pitching wedge instead of a 5 or 6 iron makes a big difference. I hit 14 greens, with 33 putts. I’m averaging 315 off the tee this season (a 25-yard improvement over last season) and hit my drive on No. 5 today 340.”
Smith began working out nine months ago. He gets up at 5 a.m. to get an hour session in at Planet Fitness before school.
“I realized golfers were getting bigger and stronger; that it wasn’t just for lanky kids anymore,” he said. “As soon as you get through that first two-week grind where you’re sore every morning, you’re golden.”
Smith didn’t have to carry the weight of the team on his shoulders. Spencer Stierhoff, who led last year’s runner-up effort, chipped in with a 74, with Joey Zahn (80) and Tommy Barkett (82) rounding out Lex’s 305 effort, one stroke better than third-place Toledo St. Francis. Toledo St. John’s won with a 300.
The other two teams to make it out were Ashland and Bowling Green, tying at 314.
It was a big day for the Arrows. Ashland’s girls team won the Division I sectional at Sycamore Springs, near Findlay, by 24 strokes over Findlay.
Senior Tori Jones shot a 79 to take medalist honors as the Arrows shot a 339. Backing Jones were Emily Brustoski (83), Catherine Swan (86) and Natalie Shultz (91).
“We finally got a fourth score,” Ashland coach Nancy Noble said, referring to Brustoski, the No. 4 player, who had a 37 on the back nine. “Toledo St. Ursula is the real deal (and team to beat at districts), but you never know when you get a fourth score. It was Emily’s best score of the season and she was one-over on the back nine.”
Grabbing the last of three individual qualifying spots was Mansfield Senior’s Morgan Adkins with a 94. Just missing the cut was Madison’s Jenna Messner with a 96.
Since losing in a one-hole playoff to Ashland’s Beau Bayerl in the Ohio Cardinal Conference Tournament, Smith has bounced back to win the Lexington Invitational in another playoff and take top sectional honors on the same course where he shot a 77 last year.
Not only did Smith avenge his loss to Bayerl, but the Minutemen finished nine strokes better than the Arrows, who won the OCC tourney and denied Lex a clean-sweep (tournament and duals) in the conference. Lex won its fourth straight OCC title on the strength of its perfect record in duals and second-place finish in the tournament. Smith earned Player of the Year honors.
“After that (OCC tourney) I walked off the course and told myself, ‘Man, you’re a loser,'” Smith said. “When coach (Ryan Zahn) told me I had another playoff (at the Lex Invite) I said I wasn’t going to lose it. I’d definitely say that sparked me.”
Before Wednesday, Smith had already been medalist at the Richland County Juniors, the Colt Classic, the Tyger Invitational and his home tourney.
“I honestly can’t tell you how many rounds I’ve been under par,” Smith said, “and that’s a great achievement because I didn’t even sniff it last year.”
Smith’s performance wasn’t anything Zahn hadn’t seen all season. Just on a bigger stage.
“Kaleb is playing with so much confidence right now,” he said. “He’s had so many good rounds; you can see it. He’s getting it done.
“I think we had good plan and the kids executed it well. Putting was good overall and the kids overcame some bad holes and hung in there. If you play every shot till the end, good things will happen.”
Johnny Peck led the Ashland boys’ run to district with a 74, followed by Max Watson (75), Bayerl (77) and Tony Chardon (88). On the girls side, Jones and the Arrows duplicated their OCC performance, where Jones took medalist honors to help Ashland dethrone Lex.
“She’s on a roll because she’s been working on her short game,” Noble said of Jones, the cousin of Shelby’s 2014 state runner-up and this week’s DII district medalist Alexis Jones. “She hits it a long way and has gotten so much better because of her chipping and putting.”
The challenge for all of the district qualifiers, girls and boys, is knowing there will be no margin for error next week. The boys are at Red Hawk Run in Findlay on Thursdayand the girls at Stone Ridge in Bowling Green on Tuesday. Only one team and one individual will qualify from those two tourneys to state.
“I walked in today and told myself I was going to win,” Smith said. “If you’re not first, you’re last. I’m a very, very competitive person. Yeah, the top five (teams and individuals) got out today, but I’d rather be No. 1 than 5. I treated the sectional like it was districts, so hopefully next week it will work out the same.”
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