EAST LIVERPOOL-The East Liverpool golf team entered the final round of last year's state tournament knowing that a good round gave the Potters a realistic shot at the title.
It was not meant to be. They shot only five strokes worse than their day one total, the Potters slipped from third place to sixth. Despite being the first Columbiana County golf team to advance to state in 15 years, the finish was disappointing.
"I think we were a little bit in awe of being there," East Liverpool coach Ben Wright said. "We thought we had a good shot at it, but just weren't able to play well on the final day."
One year later, the Potters are back, this time to close the deal. This morning, they will start their quest to become the first Columbiana County golf team to win a state title when they tee off in the Division II state tournament at NorthStar Golf Club in Sunbury, just north of Columbus.
"We are going down there with a purpose," Wright said. "We are a year better, and we feel that last years experience taught us a lot about how to prepare for this tournament. The team is a lot more relaxed this time around."
In addition to the disappointing team finish, East Liverpool senior-and Cleveland State University recruit-Blake Prince was dissatisfied with how he fared in the individual tournament. Prince shot a first round 78 to put himself just three strokes off the individual lead but dropped to 18th with a second-round 88.
"I was disappointed with my finish last year," Prince said. "I think the team as a whole got tired on the back nine in the second round. Going into last winter I really wanted to focus on my endurance. I lifted weights and did some other fitness stuff and I feel a lot stronger and more confident this year. I think I have a legitimate chance to win if I play well."
NorthStar Golf Club plays to a par of 72 and can be stretched to over 7,500 yards. It will be the longest course the Potters have played this season. Last years tournament was played at the Ohio State University's Scarlet Course, so the Potters will tee off this morning with only Thursday's practice round to guide them.
"We aren't that worried about it being a new course to us," Wright said. "We've won tournaments before on courses we have never played. The one challenging thing will be that you are only allowed one ball for your practice round."
None of the Potters are very long off the tee, and their advantage of accuracy may be somewhat neutralized due to the fact that NorthStar has less trouble lurking for those who miss the fairway than the Scarlet Course. Wright and the players felt the key will lie in how well they hit their approach shots to the green.
"At the Scarlet Course, everywhere you looked there was a bunker," senior Joey Cilone said. "This is a little more of a drivers golf course. The greens aren't that tough so we should be able to make some putts if our approach shots are solid. They will just be longer ones than we're used to."
"Long irons were our main focus in practice this week," Wright said. "We went out to the course and dropped balls in the fairway further back in the fairway than we would normally be."
The Potters have four seniors (Blake Prince, Matt Hilditch, Joey Cilone and Ryian Burson), with sophomore Isaac Davidson being the only one whose high school career will continue past Saturday.
The past few years have seen the group take the East Liverpool golf program to new heights. The players recognize the special opportunity in front of them.
"Our goal all season was to make it back to state," Cilone said. "Now that we are back here we feel some of the pressure is off. It's going to be fun to make our last round of high school golf the state tournament. We just need to go out there, relax and put up the best score possible.
"I've been playing golf with Joey (Cilone) and Isaac (Davidson) since I was a little kid," Prince said. "We've played in a lot of tournaments and had a lot of fun together. It's been great over the years to root each other on and watch our games progress to this point."