Ryder Bellios learned a hard lesson at last year’s Class 3A sectional golf tournament held at Bridges of Poplar Creek Country Club in Hoffman Estates.
Bellios missed out on a chance to advance to the state finals by just one shot – and knew that his driver held the key to another bid for a trip to state in 2022.
The Evanston Township High School senior rose to the occasion Monday on the same course at the Conant Sectional tournament, relying on his driver for a score of 3-over-par 73 and a fourth place tie overall.
Now Bellios will be driving some more –all the way to Bloomington, site of the Class 3A Illinois High School Association state tournament.
Bellios led ETHS to a fifth place showing in the team standings with a solid score of 311, but will be the lone Wildkit participating at the state finals.
On the girls side, senior Amelie Koecher missed out on an at-large individual berth by two strokes while competing at the 2A Glenbrook North Sectional.
Bellios’ hot driver put him in such good position that he was able to play it safe with a double bogey on the final hole, without jeopardizing his chances to advance.
His score of 73 included 3 birdies and 11 pars, and matched Robby O’Regan of Glenbrook North, Noah Zyung of New Trier, Nico Attlan of Payton Prep and Johnny Creamean of New Trier. Tyler Greenspahn of New Trier (66), defending state champion Jason Gordon of Glenbrook North (68) and Joey Pieracci of Loyola Academy (72) claimed the top three individual spots.
Evanston placed fifth in the 12-team field at 311, behind only New Trier (286), Glenbrook North (299), Glenbrook South (301) and Loyola (302). The top three team finishers automatically advance to state.
The Wildkits also counted a 42-37-79 by Kieran Low, a 39-40-79 by Will Wagener and a 37-43-80 by Jamie Young. Also competing for Evanston were Nick Ghate at 48-45-93, and David Castellini at 48-46-94.
Bellios leveraged last year’s painful lesson and his knowledge of the course to turn in one of the best performances of his career. Competing on an 18-hole layout described by ETHS head coach Jed Curtis as “both tricky and quirky,” Bellios stuck to his game plan and made it pay off.
“I was more confident off the tee than I ever have been before,” said Bellios. “That’s probably the best driving I’ve done all year, with both the distance and the direction.
“The past week I’ve worked a lot on my driver, because keeping the ball in play is crucial on this course. It’s not the longest course around, but accuracy plays a big role and it’s huge if you can have a consistent shot shape.”
Coach is ‘overjoyed’
“I’m overjoyed that Ryder will have this opportunity as a senior,” said Curtis. “I knew he had it in him after coming so close last year, and I felt very confident he’d be in the mix for state this year.
“He didn’t catch lightning in a bottle today. He’s had two or three scores under par for us this year, and that’s not easy to do. He has at times beaten the guys from New Trier, Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South and went toe-to-toe with the defending state champ [GBN’s Gordon]. Today he was in the fairways all day. He can get on a hot streak – and keep it there – and he’s one of those guys who’s not afraid to play well in big tournaments.”
Bellios scored birdies on 4, 6 and 11 and that gave him the cushion he needed down the final stretch. His birdie on the 11th hole was significant because of an almost impossible original uphill pin placement that caused course officials to allow most of the competitors to play the hole over after it was watered down to make it less challenging.
“The whole day people had issues with that hole, but I got close to the hole and my [birdie] putt didn’t roll back down like just about all of the others. That gave me a big advantage,” said Bellios.
“I was pretty bummed out last year when I missed by 1 shot. It’s been a huge goal of mine to qualify for state since my freshman year, so I came into the season with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I knew I had the skills to qualify. But I also knew that putting too much pressure on myself wouldn’t help, and I didn’t think I had to qualify for state to be happy with my year.
“But it ended up happening for me – and it is awesome!”
Freshman Low, who set the team scoring pace at both the Central Suburban League South division and regional tournaments, couldn’t battle back from a disastrous start and missed the qualifying cut by 2 shots with his 79.
Low was 7-over-par after the first four holes, then found his groove again and was 2-over the rest of the way.
“Kieran didn’t have any birdies today, and he’s been a birdie machine this year. Today they just eluded him,” said Curtis. “He could’ve easily thrown in the towel after those first four holes, but he fought hard. He’ll grow and come out stronger from this experience. He’s been great for us all year and he’s matured tremendously.
“It was a team effort and I’m really proud of the way we fought out there today. That 311 was one of our better scores of the year.”
The Evanston coach believes Bellios is poised for a big finish and knows the senior standout won’t be overwhelmed by the atmosphere, even though it is his first trip to the finals.
“I love the idea of Ryder at The Den (site of the 3A tournament that starts Friday),” Curtis noted. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had a golfer with a temperament as good as his. He’s always positive, always in the moment, always focused and calm.
“Ryder is also a phenomenal putter, and has a touch and feel for the greens. There’s a lot of undulation and speed on the greens at The Den and I think the course suits him well. We’re planning to go down there and play well.”
‘I came up short’
Koecher, the most accomplished female golfer in the history of Evanston’s program, couldn’t clear the sectional hurdle at Heritage Oaks Golf Club in Northbrook, carding a 44-43-87 that just missed making the cut for an at-large qualifying berth.
She gave herself a chance with an incredible 30-foot putt for a par on the 17th hole, but double bogeyed the final hole.
“To be able to drive like Amelie did today is just crazy, and it was fun watching her play today,” said Evanston coach Karilyn Joyce. “Her driving has been an issue for her lately, but it was great today. She had one bad hole on the front nine, and maybe two on the back nine, but you can’t stay perfect all the time. I was very pleased with her round.
“This was the day she needed to connect with her driver, and she did it. If you can get off the tee well, that’s half the battle. Her drives were very good in her practice round [on Sunday], but not as good as they were today.”
Koecher ranks as the program’s top player as the only ETHS girl to reach the sectional more than once. She advanced out of the regional as a freshman, junior and senior, missing out on her sophomore year because there was no postseason due to COVID-19.
“It definitely would’ve been fun to be the first girl from Evanston to make it to state, but I came up short,” Koecher sighed. “I guess I’ll cut myself a little bit of slack, but coming so close like this, I’ll be thinking about every shot tonight. And it will probably bother me for a couple of days.
“I definitely fixed my driver [between the regional and sectional tourneys], but my putting could have been a lot better. I only had 4 pars, though, and to me that’s just awful.”