GREENVILLE — The South Aiken golf team entered the final round of the Class AAAA state championship tournament in second place, nine strokes behind Boiling Springs.
The Thoroughbreds had them right where the wanted them.
Playing on the Furman University Golf Course, South Aiken methodically overtook its primary rival during Tuesday’s round, clinching the crown as the top team in South Carolina.
“It’s fantastic. The kids played so well,” South Aiken head coach Drew Jernigan said of his team which won its fourth consecutive tournament – and fourth in a row playing from behind. “They’re gutty and overcame adversity. Hard work, believing in each other, and caring for each other is what carried these guys.”
Some excellent shot making in challenging conditions under intense pressure also played a major factor in the T-Breds’ latest comeback win. Victories in the Region 5-AAAA championship, the Southern Cross and the Lower State Qualifier all saw South Aiken (313-307-302–922) surge from behind. It’s final-round total was the low combined team score of any round in the 16-team tournament.
“It’s easier to come back than holding a lead for us,” said senior Hayden Ploeger, who led the T-Breds Tuesday with a 74, leaving him with a team-best 54-hole total of 225 (71-80-74).
“It’s awesome. It means a lot because we’ve come so close (finishing third last year after holding the lead entering the final round). Now, bringing it home as I’m graduating, it’s incredible.”
Having a veteran team led by two seniors and a junior who have competed at this level previously made a big difference. South Aiken made its biggest move on the back nine. Through the first nine holes, the T-Breds trimmed three strokes off Boiling Springs’ lead. But on the way home, they turned a six-stroke deficit into a three shot margin of victory.
Although it was a beautiful day to take in the round, it wasn’t as enjoyable to play it. The wind was tricky and lack of rain, something South Aiken senior Ryan Carpenter said has been a fixture every time he’s played in the state championship the past few years, caused the course to dry out. That placed greater emphasis than normal on hitting the fairway. That’s because that was the only way to make a manageable approach to greens that were playing hard and fast.
“It’s a tough little course,” said Carpenter (80-74-77–231), who admitted he wasn’t at his best individually, but that wasn’t his priority. “It didn’t matter because this is a team event and I’m proud of our players. Since I’m a senior and the players on this team are my best friends, this means a lot.”
Jake Carter, a freshman who didn’t play on the varsity in last year’s state championship tournament, wasn’t at his best physically. Carter battled through flu-like symptoms and general discomfort through all three rounds.
In spite of his ailments, Carter made a huge contribution to the state championship with his score of 231 (80-74-77). His score as one of the T-Breds’ earlier starters was much stronger than what Boiling Springs (303-308-314–925) or Easley (316-307-307–930) could muster from comparable positions.
“It was hard, but I just tried to keep calm, not swing too hard and keep it straight,” Carter said of his approach. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it to the back nine or not and I played my best there.”
Jernigan said Carter’s grittiness was emblematic of his team’s mentality throughout the season.
“For him to overcome illness and play well was huge. They played their best when it mattered most and faced every challenge put in front of them,” Jernigan said. “They overcame a nine-shot deficit against an outstanding team with mental toughness and great effort. They weren’t satisfied playing for anything other than first.”
If all of those tangible factors weren’t enough for South Aiken, it also had good karma on its side. Since the middle of the season, the team has adopted the fun slogan of “Fear the ’stache.”
It started as a tribute to assistant coach John Arbaugh, who wears a thick mustache and the players did their best to pay tribute by growing out the hair on their upper lips. Some look much better than others, but it served as another unifying factor for the T-Breds, who used it as a rallying cry.
“We just try to look as good as Coach Arbaugh does,” said Alex Handy, who had his teammates beat in the moustache department. “It started in the middle of the season and that’s when we realized we had potential (to win a state championship). To do it is incredible.”
Only Ploeger posted a better score for South Aiken than Handy, who was consistent with his scoring to card a 227 (76-76-75). Ploeger ended up eighth place overall, 11 strokes behind tournament medalist Zak Butt. The Ashley Ridge player had Tuesday’s low round with a 69 to complete his 214, three clear of runner-up Jonathan Hardee of Riverside.
Both of them, as well as all of the top-10 finishers were named All-State. That included Aiken High’s Spencer Skiff, who qualified for the state championship as an individual after the Hornets failed to advance beyond the Lower State Qualifier. Skiff said making All-State was his primary goal, and he did that by shooting 75-74-77–226 to tie for ninth place.
“I learned I could play at the state level,” said Skiff, a junior who would like to see his team celebrating the way his crosstown foes were. In spite of the rivalry, Skiff was complimentary of South Aiken’s accomplishment. “I’m happy for them. I’m happy they played well.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.