The yellow school bus that rolled up into a parking lot after school looked rather typical. High school students exited one by one, ready to blow off a little stream after a day in the classroom.
But on closer review, the scene wasn’t so normal. The students were carrying golf bags with clubs and balls instead of backpacks stuffed with books and supplies. And the location was Willowbrook Golf Club in Lockport, where the Wilson golf team was about ready to begin another practice session.
The Lakemen and Lakewomen (there are two girls that play with the team since there’s no separate unit for them at Wilson) are familiar visitors to the course. They stick out at practice sessions because of their matching Wilson golf shirts. That level of dedication is one of the reasons why Wilson had won 33 straight team matches dating back through 2013 as of the weekend.
“They love golf,” coach Mark Kurtz said. “They are out here all the time. That’s the key.”
Winning streaks aren’t uncommon in golf. Sacred Heart has been winning girls’ championships in the Msgr. Martin Association for the last four years. Still, Wilson is enjoying a very nice run. One undefeated season in any sport is nice; three in a row would be memorable.
“Honestly, it’s great to have a handful of golfers that can keep up, stay consistent, and keep winning,” senior Connor Seeley said. “It’s a good feeling. It keeps your confidence up, as an individual and as a team.”
So far this year, everything has come together for the team. The group has a couple of standouts who give the Lakemen an advantage in most matches. Seeley probably receives the most attention, because the senior became the first Wilson golfer to play in the state championships last year.
“It has taken a lot of hard work, and in the past two years it is showing for me,” he said. “Hopefully I can break another couple of records, but I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished so far.”
If Seeley is the team’s number one golfer, Jonah Miller is more of a No. 1A than No. 2. The two seniors have both taken turns as the low scorer on a given day.
“It’s been kind of a surprise,” Miller said. “Since ninth grade, I’ve worked a lot at it. I was always on the range in ninth grade, and I brought my score” for nine holes “down from 50 to the low 40s.”
Nick Seider has been chasing Seeley and Miller for quite a while, and he’s not likely to catch them this year. But there’s always next year.
“I’ve been looking up at those guys since seventh grade, because I wasn’t that good,” Seider said. “Now I’m getting up there. Next year I should be one of the top two.”
Nate Fox knows what he has to do to join Seider as a top player for the team next year, and he’s following the example of hard work set by the seniors.
“Even during the summer, after we play our nine holes, I usually play 18 more,” he said.
While having two very good players at the top of the lineup helps, the Lakemen have plenty of depth. Six players take part in each match, and the top five scores count in a match. That depth makes it tough for the other teams in the Niagara-Orleans League to keep up.
“We’ve been lucky with them,” Kurtz said. “The No. 5, No. 6 golfers the last couple of years can shoot 45 and under. … That’s really where the strokes get picked up.”
If you think this is an ideal situation for a coach, you’re right. Kurtz is in his fourth year as the coach at Wilson, and he sounds a little bit surprised by how well the team has progressed.
“The first year we were 8-6,” he said. “Some of these guys started when they were in seventh grade. When I got here, they were in ninth grade. We have had a couple of older kids come out. But since then all of these guys have really done well.”
And, no, Kurtz isn’t taking much of the credit for the string of wins.
“A lot of these guys are better than I am,” he said. “We don’t get a lot of time to coach. In the second week we’re together, we start playing matches. They come ready to play, which helps.
“I help with how to manage the golf course, how to get around the course. There are lots of highs and lows. Even for a good golfer, one shot is great, another isn’t so good. You just have to rebound, and that’s what we talk about.”
Seeley added, “He’s a good mental coach. He helps us a lot with mental focus. I’ve had experiences where my mental game wasn’t great. He walked up to me and said, ‘Stay in it for the rest of the round.’ I did, and it paid off.”
Wilson does have numbers on its side. The team has had about 15 members for the past few years, and that helps. Golf usually is associated with large, wealthy suburbs, and places like Orchard Park, Clarence and Williamsville often do well in the sport. The town of Wilson, though, has supplied some good talent.
The golf team does have the usual small-school problem of having to share its athletes with other sports during the course of the school year. That means no one is devoting himself to the year-round pursuit of excellence, which has been become the usual technique for the area’s best in a particular sport.
“Three of the top four play all three sports. They’ll do golf, basketball, baseball,” said Kurtz, who doubles as the Wilson baseball coach. “They are busy guys. They don’t have a lot of time. But as soon as baseball is over, they are here at the course. Even during baseball season, they are out here practicing.”
Summer is the time when the Lakemen can improve, and some of them are at the driving range before 7 a.m. to start practicing. It’s helpful that Willowbrook puts out the welcome mat for young players.
“I have a membership here, and I played here all summer,” Seider said. “It’s about 20 minutes away for me.”
Kurtz added, “Jim Furlong is the pro here. He helps them out on the range. His team won the club championship with our guys. The boys also get some lessons at Frontier Country Club. Their parents have been really instrumental in getting them extra help and lessons.”
The strong work ethic has paid off right from the start of the season, as Wilson has continued its roll. All of the players have enjoyed the ride that the winning streak has provided.
“It’s been pretty awesome,” Miller said. “I have a Twitter account. That’s what I’ve been talking about a lot. It’s a great thing.”
“Now that we have the streak, we feel confident that we can keep winning,” Fox said. “There’s not that much pressure.”
All of that winning has even done the improbable - given golf a little respect around the school.
“It gets more kids involved, and new kids to join,” Fox said. “If they aren’t sure if they want to play, they see that we are winning and they want to be a part of that.”
Seeley added, “I remember when I was seventh, eighth grade, walking out to the homecoming celebration, and no one applauded for golf. Now they are standing up and cheering for us. That’s a good feeling.”