EAST LIVERPOOL-There are two schools of thought to improving one's golf game. Some are content to take a bucket of balls to the driving range or practice green and spend hours grinding away. Others do their best work out on the golf course, simulating tournament situations as closely as possible. The East Liverpool golf team falls into the latter category.
After capturing their second straight Division II district title last week, the Potters were staring at a full week-and-a-half off before Fridays state tournament. However, coach Ben Wright was hardly worried about his team's competitive edge being dulled.
As the Potters have made their way through an undefeated season, practice sessions between the tournament team of seniors Blake Prince, Joey Cilone, Matt Hilditch and Ryian Burson and sophomore Isaac Davidson have rivaled-or in some cases exceeded-the intensity of actual tournaments.
"We all want to beat each other," Burson said. "It's fun to keep it competitive instead of just hitting balls all the time. It gets monotonous if we don't have something to play for on a daily basis."
With time to kill before starting practice on Monday, the group seemed to have just as much fun bantering about their nine-hole practice matches as they did discussing their back-nine rally to win last weeks district tournament.
"There are so many good ones, I don't know where to start," Cilone said. "A couple weeks ago, Blake, Matt and I were playing Ryian, Isaac, Coach Wright and coach Shawn Long. We were 6-under and winning by three, but they holed out for eagle on the seventh to close within one. We hung on to win, but the rest of the way it was more serious than most tournaments."
To keep things fresh and loose, the Potters change their format frequently, alternating between scrambles, skins, match play, stroke play and even chipping and putting contests on the practice green.
"There is always a lot of trash talking, especially from Joey," Hilditch laughed. "It's great for camaraderie."
A favorite memory of Hilditch's came when him, Burson and Davidson opposed Prince and Cilone in a nine hole scramble.
"We actually had to carry it over to the next practice day because it was tied," Hilditch said. "We were ahead by a lot, but Joey and Blake made four straight birdies to push it to extra holes. We had to come back the next day to finish and we birdied every hole and ended up winning."
The charged atmosphere at practice, combined with a strengthened regular season schedule, means the Potters won't be overwhelmed by their opponents when they tee off Friday at the NorthStar Golf Club in Sunbury, north of Columbus.
"The way we practice definitely helps us stay fresh competitively," Davidson said. "When you stay in that tournament mindset and execute a shot it makes it easier to pull off when an actual score is on the line."
It's all part of an effort to emphasize fun that Wright started when he took over as coach five years ago.
"When I took over there was a lot of talent in the program, but some of the kids needed to remember that this is still supposed to be fun," he said. "Golf is such a hard game that you can't be uptight and serious all the time. The players and I have a very loose relationship where they are free to be themselves and can approach me with whatever they want. I think the more relaxed guys are, the better they'll play."
The Potters, though, have reached their current level by striking a balance between fun and hard work. Almost immediately after last season ended with a sixth place finish in the state tournament, Prince and Cilone began trekking to the indoor facility at Robert Morris University at least once a week to keep their swings sharp.
"I was so excited for this season, I never really stopped playing," Prince said. "Joey and I would usually go play either on evenings or weekends. Once the weather warmed up we went outside."
Prince and Cilone even went out to the East Liverpool County Club one day to shovel snow off the putting green so it would be thawed out when they returned later in the afternoon.
"When you really love to play the game it makes it much easier to go to the course every day," Wright said. "We have a bunch of guys that just really enjoy playing with each other and have taken advantage of every opportunity they've been given to improve."