- May 26, 2022
How do you coach a golf team to peak at the right time?
First-year Cardinal Mooney High boys golf Coach Drew Mitchell is trying to figure that out. The Cougars finished sixth in Class 1A at the 2021 state tournament, held at Mission Inn Club and Resort in Howey-in-the-Hills. This year, the Cougars are without Wyatt Plattner, who graduated and now plays for the University of Cincinnati, but have plenty of talent with which to work. So, it was up to Mitchell and his players to figure out how to get it done.
"You don't want to put all of your eggs in a certain basket right at the beginning of the year," Mitchell said. "You don't want to come out like gangbusters. The key is the build up at the end of the year. As a coach, you have to put that in motion. But there's only so much you can do. At the end of the day, it's on them (the golfers). Golf is a fickle game. You can be great for a week or two weeks, and then who knows what happens. They have to sustain it as long as they can."
The 2022 Mooney squad has been working toward that goal.
The Cougars' top two players are junior Tommy Tyler and sophomore Nicolas Bencomo. On Tuesday, the duo led the Cougars to a win in a tune-up match against Lakewood Ranch High, which made the state tournament in Class 3A in 2021. Over nine holes on the Rees Jones course at Laurel Oak Country Club, the Cougars beat the Mustangs 148-153. Bencomo and Tyler shot two-under 34 and one-under 35 respectively, which is to be expected. But it's the team's depth that Mitchell believes will give it a real shot to finish fifth or higher at the state tournament. On Tuesday, behind Bencomo and Tyler, junior Joe Smillie shot 38 while sophomore Stephen Peloquin, junior Lukas Wahlstrom and senior Joseph Antonelli-Pike all shot 41.
Mitchell said having that consistency down the lineup takes pressure off Tyler and Bencomo. It's OK if one of them has a bit of an off day; there's a strong possibility that someone else will step up.
"I'm excited because most of these boys have experience with both regional and state play," Mitchell said. "They have been there and know what is it is. So our goal is not just to get to states but finish higher than we did last year, which was sixth. It's a tall task but we have had kids work hard and I think that is showing with our depth."
The players agree. Bencomo said he's especially happy with how the team has played in recent weeks and believes the momentum generated now will carry over to the postseason. As for his game, Bencomo said he has been focused on simplicity. Bencomo said he just wants to hit fairways, and then greens, with his initial shots, so he can then take more aggressive shots aimed at getting close to the hole.
If that doesn't happen, it's OK, Bencomo said. Or at least, he's trying to make it OK.
"I feel like my mental strength has gotten a lot better over the past year," Bencomo said. "I’ve learned to accept that I’m going to hit some bad shots. I just need to learn how to recover instead of letting it affect my whole round."
The Cougars are motivated to peak in the postseason intrinsically — every team wants a shot at glory — but also extrinsically. Local rival Saint Stephen's Episcopal won the Class 1A state tournament in 2021 and this year return top players Beni Long and Alex Long, brothers who are a senior and a junior respectively. The Falcons look to be a top threat again; the team won the 2022 Donald Ross Memorial Tournament, an annual event held Oct. 10 at Bradenton's Sara Bay Country Club, over the Cougars by three strokes (284-287). Mitchell said the rivalry brings out the best in both programs.
"It stinks that we're in the same region as them, but it also is a motivator," Mitchell said. "Our guys have to focus and stay elevated. From that standpoint, I would rather be playing them (in the postseason) than have us going through the motions. It keeps us on our toes.
"If we can get our depth guys shooting around par, we can keep up with Saint Stephen's."
As district tournaments begin Oct. 24, the Cougars are not the only local golf team looking at a high finish at states. The Riverview High boys team finished 10th in Class 3A last season and like Mooney might be peaking at the right time. The Rams finished first at their annual Ram Invitational, held Oct. 15 at Heritage Oaks Golf and Country Club, shooting 296 as a team and beating second-place Venice High by 41 strokes in the 18-hole event. The Rams are led by senior Aksel Moe.
The girls side of the sport is not as strong in the area as it has been in years' past, but a few teams could make postseason noise, including the Mooney girls team, which is ranked 40th in Class 3A in the latest iWanamaker Florida High School Athletic Association rankings. That could be good enough to make the regional tournament stage. The Rams are a young team and are led by freshman Aida Benko.
The state tournaments will be held November 8-16 in Howey-in-the-Hills.