WEST FRANKFORT — Hamilton County advanced to Class 1A sectionals after winning Tuesday’s regional championship at Franklin County Country Club.
Freshman medalist Abe Neal carded a fifth-place score of 79 to lead the Foxes at eight strokes over par. Neal got help from teammates Laban Hunt (81), Dalton Nickols (89) and Gavin Ingram (91) on a beautiful afternoon for golf that featured a slight breeze.
Hamilton County played one less golfer than some other teams after scratching Jaron Weaver, but after dropping Keegan Johnson’s 108, the Top 4 tallied a 339 to beat West Frankfort in second by three strokes. Neal figured coming in that it’d be a tight battle for first between his team, West Frankfort and last week’s SIRR-Ohio conference champion Anna-Jonesboro.
Neal birdied on Holes 4, 10 and 16 after struggling through the front-nine. Reaching par on 2, 7 and 9 helped Neal keep his first round score at a 42 on a par-36. The back-nine was where Neal settled in stroking three birdies before hitting par on 11, 14 and 18 to close out his second round with a 37.
Neal believes he still has parts of his game to work on before next Tuesday’s sectional at Franklin County Country Club.
“I feel like putting was my main issue with my game today,” he said. “If I can play smarter and putt a little better, then we’ll have a pretty good chance again next week.”
Hamilton County coach Barry Vaughan kept his players unaware of the scoreboard before they got to the finish. Neal found out his team was ahead by three strokes after chipping in his final putt. He admitted later that perhaps not knowing the scores might have taken some of the pressure off.
“Our team found itself down by a lot early on so we knew what we needed to do coming into the stretch,” said Neal. “Our goal was to just do what we could to finish as strong as we could; not necessarily win but finish as best as we could and we rallied. It felt good to bring it in strong.”
Vaughan came to know the difficulties of facing Anna-Jonesboro and West Frankfort after facing both schools earlier in the year. The Foxes lost to the Wildcats at the start of the season before getting revenge on them at Massac County, but the Redbirds came the closest after beating Anna-Jonesboro by four strokes at McLeansboro Golf Club last week.
“We mainly thought that we were fighting for second and honestly didn’t think we had a chance at first coming in here on their home course,” Vaughan said on West Frankfort. “About halfway through the round we were seven shots behind A-J and West Frankfort was in first, but we knew there were a lot of shots to play and seven strokes in team play isn’t that many, so I thought we had a chance and we settled down on the back-nine and played better.”
West Frankfort’s Tyson Elko carded a 75 to earn top medalist honors after stroking a 77 in last week's SIRR Conference meet at Hickory Ridge. The senior was accompanied by Ben Herron (87), Colden Hilliard (88), Lucas Whittington (92) and David Beasley (92) in scoring 342 team points for a trip to next week's sectional.
“Coming into today I thought we had the greatest shot at a team score that we’ve ever had but sometimes things don’t go as planned,” said Elko. “I think I should have shot a lot better today; my chipping and putting really kind of let me down.”
Elko hopes a return back home next Tuesday will be enough to cap off his senior year with a sectional championship.
“It feels pretty good to be playing back at home for sectionals; I definitely think that it’s an advantage to me.”
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