STRASBURG — Strasburg’s golf team was built for success in 2018, and head coach Joel Morgan said the foundation was established well before he took over the program three years ago.
Speaking of his team’s successful campaign two months after the season wrapped up, Morgan credited the efforts of former Ram golf coaches Ricky Bowley and Jordan Hardy for establishing the culture that Strasburg’s 2018 exploits were built on, noting that “I couldn’t have taken over a program at a time any better than when I did” back in 2016.
When Morgan took the reins that year, he said, he did so for a team that already knew what the expectations were, that knew the value of respect for each other and the courses they played on. Even something as simple as the golfers having their shirts tucked in when showing up for practice caught Morgan’s attention.
“I think the program was in a spot where all we needed a deep enough group of players,” Morgan, The Northern Virginia Daily’s 2018 Golf Coach of the Year, said last week, “and the rest of the culture of the program was at a state from where the (previous) coaches had already placed it, where if we had the right players, the culture was already there. And with five seniors coming back and five guys that had played in 10 to 12 matches a year for the last three years, we thought that could happen (this season).”
The expectations for the 2018 Rams were high from the start. Coming into the season they had a two-time state qualifier at the top of their lineup in senior Austin Stickles, and classmate Seth Stickley had reached the regional tournament in each of his first three seasons. Four other golfers — junior Drew Thomas, senior twins Jack and James Burr and senior Satchel Roller — had filled out a starting lineup that had qualified for the Region 2B championships in 2017.
That talent and experience prompted Morgan on the first day of 2018 practice to establish a goal to win the Bull Run District tournament. As the season progressed, Morgan recalled, it became more apparent that the Rams could contend for a spot in the state tournament, something they’d never done before.
“I said now, you don’t get there if you don’t play good, so you’re gonna have to play well, but let’s really focus on what we’re doing here,” Morgan said. “I think it was something that as the season went on we kept establishing goals for ourselves. And I always try to get kids to understand, care about your teammates more than you care about yourself, and if you do that I think the rest of the stuff kind of takes care of itself.”
Strasburg achieved all of those goals.
The Rams won the Shenandoah County Championship for the third straight season and for the sixth time in the last eight years. Powered by twin 78s from Stickles and Stickley — the two lowest rounds of the day — Strasburg won the Bull Run District title at Bryce Resort on Oct. 1, and a day later placed second in the Region 2B tournament at Heritage Oaks to earn its first trip as a team to the Class 2 State Championships at Lonesome Pine Country Club in Big Stone Gap. At the state tournament on Oct. 9, the Rams placed fifth as a team while Stickley finished fourth overall.
Strasburg’s strong playoff run was a testament to its depth. The Rams landed five golfers — Stickles, Stickley, Thomas and the Burr twins — among the top 10 at the district championship, and at the regional meet James Burr, playing from the No. 6 spot, turned in an 80 to tie for the team’s second-lowest score of the day.
Morgan said throughout the season only two or three golfers felt their lineup spots were safe going into every qualifying round in practice.
“From that perspective, it made us more competitive,” he said. “Every day I could really stress the importance of ‘hey, you’ve gotta be good today. You’ve gotta care about every stroke you’re making out there today.’ And I think in the end it certainly helped us be more competitive at the end (of the season).”
While the Rams enjoyed success at the individual level, Morgan said they took a unified approach to the season.
While making his rounds during matches, Morgan would check in on each of his golfers to get feedback on how they were playing. Some were willing to talk about their rounds more than others, Morgan recalled, but almost all of them asked their head coach how the rest of the team was doing.
“In the end what I’m most proud of is our kids really cared about the fact that we could take a whole group (to the state tournament),” Morgan said. “That’s why I told (Strasburg athletic director Matt) Hiserman, we had four other guys that didn’t get to play in the (state) match, but I wanna take them because this is a team.”
That team will need to reload next season with the graduation of five seniors set to erase the bulk of Strasburg’s 2018 contributions. The Rams should return five others, including Thomas and fellow rising seniors Corey Keller, Colin Kosubinsky and Christopher Shelton.
“It’ll be hard to duplicate the same type of numbers in terms of scores that we had this year,” Morgan said, “but the ones that we have coming back, one of them played in all the matches and played our number three (Thomas), but the other two (Kosubinsky and Shelton) are two that every day were competing hard to try to get one of those last couple spots, and five or six times they did. Both of those are kids that can come back and jump right into a starting lineup. I feel like we’re gonna put four or five guys out there and our job now is we’ve gotta find some new kids.”