ZANESVILLE — Two years ago, Zanesville’s high school golf team could barely win a match.
Jared Ball, J.J. Burns and Tyson Dickinson were sophomores who took their lumps, and first-year coach Jim Rudloff was trying to learn the ropes with players who were equally inexperienced.
Things are much different in 2015.
Those same sophomores are now seniors who have been through the rigors of varsity competition with Rudloff as the coach. They’ve been good enough to win a district title and take part in their first Division I state tournament, set for Friday and Saturday at the famed Scarlet Course at Ohio State.
It’s the first time a Blue Devil golf team has been in the state tournament in 48 years, before some of the players’ parents were born.
Ball, Burns and Dickinson have been mainstays, but the play of sophomores Nolan Kimberly and Jace Ruggerio have provided balance to a lineup that doesn’t have a true No. 1 player, but the scores rarely differentiate.
Their personalities, however, vary substantially.
Burns is quiet and reserved, although his teammates feel his disposition is more vibrant away from the course. Dickinson, particularly, is an affable, engaging sort that provides levity. Sometimes it’s needed, as Kimberly and Ruggerio, usually the team’s top scorers, tend to be perfectionists.
“Tyson is definitely the jokester,” Ruggerio said. “He definitely takes our mind off a lot of stuff.”
It’s common for the team, especially the seniors, to be found riding to football games together and actively participating in the student section. It’s also a mere formality that food is usually involved.
“Chipotle,” Burns said. “We always eat.”
The mix may be wide-ranging, but there’s no doubting the effectiveness on the course, where it’s all business. Those five, along with Joslyn Goins, who competed in the girls tournament as an individual, stayed consistent for much of the season.
“Regardless of who it is that doesn’t play well, there’s always another score there,” Dickinson said.
It was no more evident than the district tournament at Crown Hill, where four of the five scores were five shots apart, with Ruggerio leading the way with 80 to earn runner-up medalist.
A week earlier in the sectional at River Greens, where the team also claimed a team title, Kimberly (80), Ball (81) and Burns (82) were just two shots apart.
Oddly enough, the team shot 331 at both tournaments.
“We hit a lull there for a couple weeks where we didn’t play real well, and I think part of that was because some guys had played but hadn’t played a lot and consistently,” Rudloff said. “Over the course of the season we peaked at the right time.”
Kimberly felt the team exceeded expectations.
“I thought we’d probably win the sectional, just with the new format and stuff,” Kimberly said. “When we went into districts I really didn’t know how we would do against the other teams but it was definitely better than I expected.”
Now that the state tournament has become reality, tackling the long, narrow and heavily bunkered layout at Scarlet — redesigned by Jack Nicklaus in 2006 — is one of the most challenging statewide. It measures as long as 7,455 yards, although the state tournament is generally played at just below 7,000.
Nonetheless, the task is daunting.
“It’s going to be tough for everyone there,” Ruggerio offered.
The Blue Devils will take the worst district score into the tournament and are the only team without an individual qualifying score in the 70s. Many coaches in the talent-heavy Central District, where all 12 teams shot 327 or better at the Apple Valley district, have spurned the idea of letting the East-Southeast districts have their own representative, feeling it is unfair.
That fact isn’t lost on Zanesville’s players.
“I take it personally. We earned the right to be there like everybody else that made it there,” Ball said. “There’s no pressure. We’re just going up there and play and have fun and see where we’re at. We’re one of the top 12 teams in the state no matter what.”
It’s a point Rudloff has made at length this week.
“We’re going to go up there and play the best golf we can possibly play, and whatever happens, happens,” Rudloff said.