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The question Jed Curtis gets asked most these days is this — Now what do you do for an encore?
Following up on a tie for 7th place at the Illinois High School Association Class 3A state tournament — the best finish in Evanston’s school history — may seem like a daunting task for a boys golf program that hasn’t enjoyed much team success in the postseason until the Class of 2014 broke through last fall.
But Coach Curtis and the members of this year’s squad have embraced that challenge.
“This is a wonderful group of guys this year, as fine gentlemen as we’ve had in the program since I’ve been a part of it,” said Curtis, who is in his 8th year as head coach and has been involved in the program for 12 years. “I’m really excited about this group. I think they’ll rise to the challenge. I think they want to step up and keep the momentum of the program going forward.
“Last year was a lot of fun. Now so far the seniors (led by state tournament veterans Bill Nondorf and Sam Knepper) have set the tone for us, and they want to keep it going. This is their turn to leave their own legacy here. They’ll be as good as they want to be.”
Graduated seniors Jackson Mihevc, Henry Gruger, Jake Casati and Evan Ter Molen helped the program grow during their four years in Wildkit uniforms, grinding out scores that were good enough to advance through the regional and sectionals for that coveted State berth.
They restored a belief and a confidence that the Wildkits could compete with — and beat — programs dominated by “country club” players locally like New Trier and Loyola Academy as a team, instead of just settling for an occasional individual state qualifier. With help from both Nondorf and Knepper at last year’s state finals, the Evanston turned in a 36-hole team score of 626, good for a tie with Prospect for 7th place and only 23 shots behind the eventual state champion, Hinsdale Central.
“Golf is such a game of confidence and of belief in yourself,” Curtis added. “There are a lot of very sound fundamental players competing against you out there, and a kid has to believe that he can do it. I sense that this group has that kind of belief, that they can string together several good holes in a row. I think every one of them feels they could have a score that will count.
“Golf can be such a frustrating game. But when you see your teammates out there staying positive and grinding out scores, you see a recipe for success.”
This year the Kits will follow the lead of Nondorf and Knepper, who’ll move up into the top two spots in the lineup and will have to deal with the pressure that goes with playing in foursomes with the No. 1 and No. 2 golfers from opposing squads.
So far, so good. Knepper was the medalist with a one-over-par score of 37 Wednesday and Nondorf added a 38 as the Wildkits tripped Wheaton Warrenville South 152-156 in their season opener.
Curtis’ squad also counted a 38 from senior Adam Niebalski and a 39 from junior Ethan Stein. Others who figure to be in the varsity scoring mix at some point this fall include seniors Nick Maslauski and Gil Hurtig; juniors Dylan Thompson, Nick Lydon and Robert James; sophomores Jordan Wallace and Daniel Nortz; and a promising freshman, Matthew Barbado, who claimed medalist honors in a 6-team tournament Monday for the ETHS frosh-soph team.
“I really didn’t know what to expect for the first match,” Curtis confessed. “Nondorf had played well during our (3-day) tryouts, but I couldn’t be happier to get four scores in the 30s like we did.
“Both Nondorf and Knepper have been great leaders for us so far. They played a big part in our team success last year, and now they have to lead by example, and help this team to jell and form their own identity. Both of them have taken their games to the next level.”