POPLAR GROVE – For his third straight trip to the state golf meet, Sterling senior Andrew Blackburn will have some company … just not as much as in his previous two.
The Golden Warriors fell seven strokes short of making their third consecutive appearance at the 2A state meet as a team, but Blackburn will be joined this weekend at Normal's Weibring Golf Club by teammate Ryan Hurley.
Blackburn fired a 7-over-par 79, good for runner-up individually at the Class 2A Belvidere North Sectional on Monday at Timber Pointe Golf Club. The two-time regional medalist admitted to mixed emotions after his round.
"It's a little strange," Blackburn said. "We came so close as a team, and it's kind of disappointing. I'm still going down as an individual, but before the team has been there with you. Ryan and I are on our own now, and we're in control of our own destiny at state."
With the wind sweeping across the open countryside and temperatures in the mid-50s, Blackburn and the rest of the field battled the conditions all day. After playing the first three holes at 4-over par, Blackburn notched pars on the next seven holes, then birdied No. 11. He finished his final seven holes in 3-over, taking second place behind Ottawa's Lane Barbier, who was medalist with a 77.
"My game plan was to lay up, play it safe and be conservative, just get my 76 to make it out," Blackburn said. "When I started bogey-par-triple bogey, I got to the fourth hole and just started playing the type of golf that got me to this point. I didn't expect it to be this windy, but I settled in through the middle of the round and got some solid scores down."
His sophomore teammate was aiming for that same 76, and Hurley also had to adjust his thinking when he gauged the conditions. He matched Blackburn's 40 through the front nine, and was buoyed when one of his coaches told him 86 might be the number to qualify for state.
"I didn't know for sure, so I just played the best I could," said Hurley, whose 84 was the third-best score among the advancing individuals not on the top three teams. "I saw a lot of scores in the 100s come in, but I was still nervous until my coaches told me I was officially in. I felt more relief than anything else, and now I've got another week to play golf this season."
Hurley was happy with the way he played, especially how he hit his irons in the gusty conditions. His accuracy proved to be the key, as he hit quite a few fairways and greens in regulation and left himself with very few pressure putts.
A first-timer to state, Hurley is in the same boat Blackburn was in 2 years ago. The sophomore plans to lean heavily on the senior the next few days, and Blackburn is happy to be the tutor in his final go-round at Weibring.
"I've never played there before, so I'm going to take my practice round seriously and get everything down I can from Andrew and my coaches," Hurley said. "It's definitely a confidence boost to play as well as I did today in these conditions."
"This is my last year down at state, and I'm not going to hold anything back," Blackburn said. "I've got two rounds to prove myself to the rest of the state, and I'm going to do what I have to do to do that."
Sterling placed fourth with a 359, behind Ottawa (340), Wheaton Academy (349) and Kaneland (352). The Warriors' other players were junior Zach Rehmert (95), junior Austin Cook (101), junior Trevor Sisson (104) and junior Kyle Sinn.
"We were that close, and we get everybody but Andrew back next year," Sterling coach C.J. Wade said. "This will be good experience for Ryan, and hopefully he can set an example and lead the way back down [to state] for the other guys next year."
Six other locals also competed but did not advance as individuals: Dixon senior Dan Pultorak (96), Rock Falls senior Logan White (100) and junior Aaron Frank (106), and Oregon senior Brian Ostrander (91), junior Ben Gardner (97) and freshman Mitchell Nehrkorn (109).
Of the individuals not on the three advancing teams, nine players shot 87 or better to qualify for state. There were five players who shot 88, forcing a playoff for the final spot. Antioch's Eric Pascual claimed it on the second playoff hole.
Class 2A Belvidere North Sectional
Top 3 teams
1. Ottawa 340; 2. Wheaton Academy 348; 3. Kaneland 352
Medalist: Lane Barbier (Ottawa) 77
Local state qualifiers: Andrew Blackburn (Sterling) 79; Ryan Hurley (Sterling) 84