Regional champion Indians head to Wichita for 5A finale
By AUSTIN COLBERT
Freshman Robby Shelton is the best golfer for the University of Alabama men's golf team, ranked No. 1 in the nation entering this weekend's NCAA Championships at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson.
Even so, Hays High School sophomore Payton Ruder decided to wish Shelton good luck when he was faced with a difficult approach shot while playing a practice round at Wichita Country Club on Wednesday.
"Our balls were probably 10 feet apart from each other. He had probably a four-foot gap to hit a shot through and he hit it perfectly," Ruder said. "Before, I told him, 'Good luck with that.' And he hits that shot and I'm like, 'Well, you don't really need my luck, so I'll go hit my shot now.' "
Their meeting was just chance. The Hays High School boys' golf team was in Wichita playing its lone practice round at WCC ahead of Tuesday's Class 5A state golf tournament. Due to the number of teams competing at the NCAA Championships in Hutchinson, Alabama had to hold its practice round that day in Wichita.
"It's just cool to see where their balls were landing compared to where mine were landing," HHS senior Kaden Beilman said. "They were hitting their drives like 330 yards and I'm hitting mine like 100 yards back. It was crazy. But it was really cool to see a bunch of potential professional golfers."
Once the excitement of playing next to the defending NCAA champions wore off, it was all business for the Indians.
Fresh off their regional championship at Smoky Hill Country Club, the Indians have high hopes heading into Tuesday's state tournament.
Hays High has settled for back-to-back eighth-place finishes at state the last two seasons. Prior to that, they took fifth in 2011, the year Indian golfer Trey Herman -- now at Fort Hays State University -- finished second overall. In 2010 the Indians finished second, with Nick VonLintel -- also golfing at FHSU -- winning the individual championship.
This year's group is hoping to climb the ladder once again, even though they know the odds might be stacked against them.
"If you look at the teams that are going to be there and stroke averages, we are about the eighth best team. That's kind of hard to say when you win a regional, because those other regionals are really good," HHS coach Mark Watts said. "I think our depth will help, but we just have to have a couple kids that are going to go low ... Kapaun is the favorite. They should be because they have the best team."
Despite falling short to Maize South in its regional last week, Kapaun Mount Carmel will still be the frontrunner for the team trophy. The Crusaders have won the last two state titles and three of the last four, while its top golfer, Sam Stevens, an Oklahoma State University golf signee, is the two-time reigning state champion.
But Hays High is bringing with it plenty of experience. Beilman, the team's leader by average, will be playing in his third state tournament. He led the Indians a year ago in Overland Park, finishing 10th with a 77.
Beilman and Ruder tied for the regional championship last week, with Ruder winning in a playoff. Ruder shot an 84 to finish in a tie for 45th at the state golf tournament last season as a freshman.
And by winning the regional title at Smoky, Ruder will get to play in the tournament's final pairing against the top golfers from the other three regional champions: Maize South, Andover High School and St. Thomas Aquinas.
"Knowing that I come in last and everyone is going to be watching on the 18th green, that is kind of cool. But there is also some pressure that comes with that," Ruder said. "At state last year, I didn't have the best round. Didn't play very good. But I'm ready for this year. I'm really looking forward to it."
Beilman will be the Indians' No. 2 golfer, followed by junior Nathan Romme, junior Cash Hobson, senior Chase Lynd and senior Lane Clark. Lynd will be playing at state for the first time, while Hobson and Clark will be there for the third time.
Romme, also playing in his third state tournament, led the Indians with a 25th-place finish as a freshman in 2012. Last season, he tied at 53rd with Clark with an 85.
"I feel more relaxed going into it this time," Romme said. "It was overwhelming and I was probably over nervous. But this year it's not as bad."
Hays High will spend Sunday in Hutchinson watching a round -- barring any more rain delays -- of the NCAA Golf Championships. The Indians plan to play a practice round in Wichita on Monday -- although per rules it can't be at WCC -- before Tuesday's tournament.
Clark will be the first off the tee for Hays High at approximately 9:30 a.m., with the other five golfers playing in the groups directly behind him.