FREEPORT – As calm as Ryan Dixon was early Monday afternoon, the Sterling golf team was equally anxious a couple of hours later.
The Dixon High School senior - who also won a bowling sectional title in early 2012 - lulled himself into Nirvana by carding six birdies for a medalist-worthy 1-under 71 at the Class 2A Freeport Sectional.
The only thing redder than select leaves amid the patchwork scenery at Park Hill West Golf Course was Dixon's 71 on the wall at the clubhouse, the only total inked with a crimson marker.
"That was probably the most relaxed I've ever been in any meet," Dixon said.
With a first state meet berth in the balance? Please explain, Pat Lessner.
"Making birdies does several things," the longtime Dixon golf coach said. "It not only builds the confidence. It also lets you know, 'Hey. This is all right.' It calms you down so you can swing with good tempo. Then you can put it in automatic at that point."
Sterling returned to state for the fourth time in 5 years with 331 strokes, two fewer than Woodstock Marian, three fewer than Aurora Central Catholic and four fewer than Kaneland. Boylan won with 310, and Burlington Central was second with 317. The 2-day state meet opens Friday at Weibring Golf Club in Normal.
Rock Falls senior Andrew Tichler carded a steady 78 that tied him for the last individual spot. It took almost 2 hours for the smoke to clear and confirm that.
"This is tough," he said after finishing his round. "I've been through it a lot."
He at least could ride the good vibes on the approach of the day, hit from the No. 1 fairway onto the No. 18 green, clearing a pack of trees and withstanding gusts of wind.
"I didn't know how much was the wind actually going to play," Tichler said. "That and the fairway was going against the way I was going in. I wasn't sure how – contact-wise – it was going to come out. I was fine with the trees, fine with the line, but I really had no idea where the pin was from my stance."
He knocked it stiff to within 10 feet, and a smile spread across his face
"It should've been close enough to knock it in," said Tichler, who settled for a two-putt par. The rules committee then decided his embedded ball in the fringe on No. 9 would not cost him a stroke, punching his ticket to state.
About an hour after Tichler finished, and 2 after Dixon wrapped up his sublime round, Sterling coach C.J. Wade had done the math. His ace, Ryan Hurley needed to convert pars on the last two holes, and Trevor Sisson needed to shoot 1-over or better on the final three in order to nip a kettle of three teams circling over the third and final team berth.
"Can I puke now?" Wade said, his hands folded behind his head as he paced while Hurley set out on No. 18 and Sisson on 17.
Both golfers provided the antiemetics by doing what was asked – without literally being asked, of course. From the heart of the fairway 80 yards away, Hurley parked an iron within 10 feet of the hole and two-putted. Although his approach on No. 18 came from well right of the fairway, Sisson followed suit.
But then, Sisson isn't one to take the easy path. He overcame an 11 on the first hole – on which he hit the ball out of bounds, then into the creek – to shoot an 87.
"Once I figured out I was putting for 11, I thought, 'Well I know what I have to do now,'" Sisson rationalized. "I knew my team needed the help.
"Getting through has been my goal since freshman year, is to make it through. I've been waiting for this moment."
Hurley tied for the meet's third-best score with a 76, and Zach Rehmert persevered to an 89.
That leaves Kyle Sinn, who shot an admittedly abysmal 89 at the LaSalle-Peru Regional. He bounced back with a round of 79 that ended with a birdie and featured a run of eight – check that, six – consecutive pars.
He had one revoked when one of his three playing partners marked him down for a bogey 5 on No. 12. The rules committee convinced Sinn to sign the card, despite his insistence that it was errant.
"I wish they would've called me over, but I guess I couldn't have done anything," Wade said. "Kyle is one of the most honest, genuine kids you'll ever meet. It's an unfortunate thing to happen. Of anybody in the sectional, I think you could trust Kyle the most."
The good news was it didn't matter. And Sinn capped his day by rolling in a 12-footer that leaned from right to left, making up for a lackluster fringe putt.
"The fringe putt was ugly. It was terrible," Sinn said. "I had a little bit of mud on the ball, so I was thinking about that instead of the putt."
Let's not get too far away from Dixon, who hit 13 fairways and 12 greens in regulation. He birdied Nos. 3, 4, 7, 8, 14 and 16 after teeing off on the back nine at about 10 a.m., the sectional's commencement delayed 20 minutes by frost.
He bogeyed Nos. 18 and 1, slipping to 2-over before getting hot in a hurry. On No. 2, he tugged his iron to the far-left side of the green. It was one of very few irons he didn't track right at the stick.
"His irons into the hole were right on," Lessner said. "He was zeroing in. They were like darts."
But as three brown leaves rolled like tumbleweeds through his ball's path, Dixon's 35-foot birdie attempt left him a 2-footer after staying right, setting up a tap-in. He only putted 28 times – many of them shorter than 10 feet – and the longer ones featured exquisite speed.
On No. 3, he tagged a perfect fade out of the tee box, then parked an iron 6 feet short of the hole, and below it. He flashed a modest fist pump as his birdie putt melted from right to left and into the cup, putting him back at 1-over.
The birdie on No. 7 was sheer magic. Dixon hit his iron to within 15 feet of the back-right pin location.
"I just wanted to play a little cut, and it did. It was going at the hole," Dixon said.
However, the putt was downhill, and not subtle.
"I was just like, 'All right, just get it close,'" Dixon said. "Then it went in and I said, 'All right, I'll take it.'"
He parlayed the momentum into a birdie on No. 8.
From a safe distance, Lessner was smiling.
"Usually if somebody is doing well like that, I'll stay away," he said. "They're in a zone at that point. When they see a coach, they press and try to do even better."
"I just built a good tempo at the driving range this morning," Dixon said, coolly. "Then I just took my time. There was no rush today."