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Team surpasses expectations with regional victory and trip to state tournament

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Trenton Brinkley follows his approach shot on the fifth hole at Meadow Lakes earlier this year. Brinkley had the best round of his career on the second day of the state tournament to help the Cowboys to a fifth-place finish in the event. Brinkley is one of five returning varsity golfers for the Cowboys.The season started slowly for the Crook County High School boys golf team.

With heavy snow on the ground, the team spent the first week of practice inside going over rules and watching film.

Then the team was forced to hit golf balls off of a mat into a net, before more than two weeks into the season they were finally able to get onto the driving range at Meadow Lakes Golf Course.

"You saw pictures of us hitting off of a mat into a net," head coach Zach Lampert said when talking about the season late last week. "The weather had a big impact on how we started."

Even then, there were still tournaments canceled due to unplayable courses as well as a week of flooding that impacted practice at Meadow Lakes.

As a result, some of the early rounds of golf played by the team may not have gone as well as hoped for.

Still, the team stayed together and worked hard. And as the season went on, that hard work was rewarded.

"Of our core group, especially the varsity guys, I can only remember one practice that was missed among all of the varsity boys," Lampert said. "They were all there for every tournament they were asked to play. One kid between all of them missed one practice. They are there every single day, and that's why they are getting better."

Moving up from Class 4A to Class 5A and with a new playoff qualification format early in the year, Lampert hoped that the team might be able to find a way to qualify for the state tournament.

However, once the league season began and the team wound up fourth in the Intermountain Conference final standings, those hopes seemed dim.

The fourth-place finish guaranteed the team a trip to the regional tournament, but that would be played on the home course of IMC rival Hood River Valley, who finished second in the league during the regular season.

Adding to the difficulty of earning a trip to the state tournament, The Dalles, which also finished ahead of the Cowboys, in the league season regularly plays the Hood River Course, leaving the Cowboys with what at least looked on paper like a very slim chance to qualify for the state tournament.

Instead, the Cowboys not only qualified for state, they won the regional tournament.

"We were fourth in the league," Lampert said. "We had a pretty good lead over fifth, so we were confident that we were going to make it to regionals, but nothing would have led us to believe based on the regular season play that we were going to win the regionals."

However, Lampert added that he knew the team was capable of playing better as a group than they had shown in the regular season.

After all, several golfers had posted low scores in occasional tournaments, while others had played well only to see their scores balloon over one or two bad holes.

"We knew we were capable. It was just a matter of whether or not they were going to peak at the right time," Lampert said. "They did that, and then to have their best score of the year at state, that was really fun."

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Hogan Smith chips onto the green during a tournament at Meadow Lakes early in the high school golf season. Smith is one of three sophomores who played varsity golf for the Cowboys this year. The team returns all five of their golfers off of a team that finished fifth at this year's state tournament. In the end, the Cowboys not only qualified for the state tournament, they just missed out on earning a trophy at state. The Cowboys finished in fifth place, just nine strokes behind Corvallis.

What makes the achievement all the more noteworthy is that of the six players who played in most of the varsity tournaments, just one is lost to graduation.

That golfer, Addison Peer, did not even get to play at state, but had a major impact at the regional tournament.

"Every year we have a kid that comes into the program as a freshman that has never really picked up a set of clubs," Lampert said. "We try to never cut a freshman because you never know who is going to get the bug and play a lot. Addison was one of those kids that played quite a bit and improved a lot over the course of four years. Without his score on the second day of regionals, we wouldn't have won, so he stepped up when it mattered most."

The remaining five golfers who played at state all return.

Trenton Brinkley and Brodie Kuizenga will both be seniors next year, while Hogan Smith, Cayden Lowenbach and Carlos Sanchez will be juniors.

In addition, Tannon Joyner could be in the mix for a varsity spot as well as incoming freshman Palmer Smith.

With all the experienced players returning and the addition of new blood, Lampert has high expectations for next season.

Of all the teams who qualified for the state tournament, just Crook County has their entire roster returning next season.

As a result, Lampert believes that the Cowboys could be a force in the post season as long as the team does enough work in the off season.

"If they don't put in the time in the off season, they will basically be starting over next spring, which is what we don't want," he said. "But I think that this is a group that will put in the time."

Lampert added that the experience that the team gained this year should pay big dividends down the road.

"This wasn't a year of expectations," Lampert said. "It was just whatever we get we are happy with as long as we show improvement, but next year, based on our finish, we are going to have some expectations, and they are going to have to work hard to meet those. I think there is a high ceiling and a chance to be really good next year and beyond."

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