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Wellesley High golf squad shares the pressure to excel

On eve of final, Raiders rely on depth of talent

CHRIS McKENNA Team captain CHRIS McKENNA Team captain
By Jason Mastrodonato
Globe Correspondent / October 30, 2011

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WELLESLEY - Perhaps the most selfish of individual sports, golf has a way of carving itself into the mind of even a seasoned player, much less that of a high school athlete. A bad shot may result in three more; one bad hole can kill the attitude for an entire round.

“The toughest five inches of golf is between your ears,’’ said Harold Williams, in his 34th season as Franklin High’s head coach. “That’s what happens with these kids all the time. It’s hard to relax.’’

With at least six players capable of shooting a low score, this fall’s Wellesley High squad has the depth to ease the burden.

“It’s not isolated pressure with us,’’ said Wellesley senior captain Chris McKenna. “It’s spread out. I think ideally, that will help us out a lot. We can go out there knowing that not one single kid has to play lights out.’’

No one on the Raiders’ roster expects to play golf at the Division 1 level in college - although sophomore Matt Finnerty seems to have the potential if he continues to improve. The team’s best individual score in Monday’s Division 2 South sectional championship, held at Easton Country Club, was a 6-over-par 77.

Yet Wellesley advanced to tomorrow’s state final at Hickory Ridge CC in Amherst because of its depth; the team’s 316 total Monday, based on its four low scores, represented an average score of 79.

Sound like a potential state champion? Maybe not to most, but to the Raiders, it does. “We’re not these big-time kids who are looking to go down South’’ for college, and then join the PGA Tour, said junior Brian McMahon. “We’re just high school kids who love playing golf and get to compete for a state championship. That’s it.’’

The Raiders, a squad without a single superstar, as coach Ken Bateman will admit, will attempt to knock off all the others.

A quick look shows the competition to be strikingly different.

Franklin High’s Peter French shot the day’s best score, 71, to lead the Panthers to the sectional title. Sandwich needed a 73 from Connor O’Leary to keep the Blue Knights in contention for the Division 2 crown. And Ryan Harris carding the medal-winning 66 at Hillview Golf Course allowed Concord-Carlisle High’s season to continue.

Wellesley may not have a player that breaks par. Of the top five teams at the sectional, the Raiders were the only one not to shoot below 76. Yet, Bateman’s crew finished just three strokes behind first-place Franklin.

And that despite incurring a two-stroke penalty, when Ian Ballantyne accidentally hit another golfer’s ball on the fifth hole.

Williams estimates at least 5 percent of high school golfers would have kept quiet in a situation like that, saving two crucial strokes that could have cost Wellesley its season. So when Ballantyne approached his ball on the fifth green, and noticed an orange marking that was not his, he could have pocketed the found ball and put down a new one.

The Wellesley senior captain respects the game too much to be dishonest, and he figured his teammates would pick him up.

Sure enough, Owen Peters turned in a 77 and Wellesley held onto third place by three strokes.

“Listen, Ian Ballantyne is a very good player,’’ said Williams, who also serves as the Division 2 South tournament director. “He just had a tough day. I got a phone call that said someone hit the wrong ball, but he didn’t notice it till he got to the green and he called it. Then he had to go back to his original ball, play it from there, and still shot a 79.

“You’ll find most of these kids that go through this game learn a lot about themselves, and they’ll do that, they’ll call the penalty on themselves,’’ he said. “This isn’t like other sports, with officials. Ian was very good to do that.’’

For Ballantyne, it was an easy decision. Had he not made the call, his 77 would have been good enough to take Finnerty’s spot in the state individuals.

“It’s something that I’ve sort of been surprised by everyone’s reactions to,’’ Ballantyne said of calling the penalty on himself. “It’s the rule of the game, and how I was taught to play it.’’

While Williams is leaning on French (last year’s Division 2 individual champion) to lead the Franklin Panthers to a state title, Wellesley obviously has a very different approach. But does Williams think that a team with 6 over par as its best score in the sectionals can win it all?

“Yes, I would think that,’’ Williams said. “If everyone shoots 77, what does that add up to? 308? That’ll win these things. Over the years when we won four titles, I had a couple kids who were pretty good. But I’d rather have the depth.’’

So would Bateman.

At the end of practice Wednesday at Wellesley Country Club, the coach directed his players to smile for a team picture. And instead of saying cheese, out came the words “Beat Franklin.’’

Some of his players laughed while others held the steady pose, each of their smiles a little bit different.

But rest assured, when Wellesley steps onto the course tomorrow, all six golfers - McKenna, Finnerty, McMahon, Ballantyne, Peters, and Paul Santangelo - will be in unison. If the past is any sign of the future, there won’t be anyone breaking par, though don’t look for any one to post an 85, either.

And even if someone does turn in a terrible round, “It doesn’t make any difference,’’ Bateman said. “We have five other scores to choose from. We’re pretty safe there.’’

The Raiders are out to prove that one person can’t win a state title.

“I think we’ve been a solid team for a long time, but the only reason we haven’t won states is because to ask six kids to go out and play well on one given day - that’s tough,’’ McKenna said.

Bateman added, “I’m telling you I could have selected any eight of our top 13 kids.’’ He then turned to watch the six golfers chosen to compete tomorrow take near-perfect practice swings in harmony. “Maybe it’s because we don’t have that one kid that everybody worships.

“But overall, we just have a better chance of winning. And the kids want it. They want it more than I do, and more than John Brown,’’ Wellesley’s athletic director, Bateman said. “They want it for themselves.’’

Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at jasonmastrodonato@ yahoo.com.