For the Palmyra golf team, finishing runner-up at the Class 2 state tournament Tuesday at Fremont Hills Country Club didn't happen by chance. It was a matter of determination.
For the Palmyra golf team, finishing runner-up at the Class 2 state tournament Tuesday at Fremont Hills Country Club didn't happen by chance.
It was a matter of determination.
After falling 10 strokes short of qualifying for the finals as a team a year ago, the Panthers made it their top priority to reach the biggest stage in 2017.
That goal became their sole focus.
The Palmyra golfers sacrificed much over the past 12 months to reach the pinnacle of their game.
From waking up for voluntary morning practices at their home Jackson Park Golf Course to spending many evenings training in Quincy, these Panthers proved they had the work ethic to pull off something special.
Let's recap the Panthers special run this season:
Palmyra kicked off the season March 21 by winning a windy quadrangular match at Centralia by 30 strokes. Noah Wilson, Laithan Sublette and Lane Hammond — the squad's “big three” — swept 1-2-3 on the leaderboard.
It was a sign of things to come.
Soon after, the Panthers was victorious at a triangular match in Elsberry and also won a quadrangular match at Norwoods.
On Tuesday, April 4, Palmyra came away from a triangular match at Jackson Park unsatisfied despite the fact the Panthers came in first place. Wilson earned medalist honors and Hammond and Sublette placed second and third, respectively.
“Sometimes, even to their detriment, they’re almost too competitive,” Palmyra coach Marty Smyser said at the time of his star-studded squad. “I want them to be happy with winning, and I think they are, but they’re never really very satisfied with just winning.”
Palmyra won a dual against a talented Father Tolton squad on Thursday, April 6 and cruised to a dual win over South Shelby on Tuesday, April 11. One day later on Wednesday, April 12, Sublette led the Panthers to first place at the team's home invitational. He medaled on his home course with a 2-over-par 72.
“Laithan works hard,” Smyser said that day of the champ. “He spends a lot of mornings out at our course, as early at 7 o’clock almost every day chipping and putting. As a coach, you hope that the kids that work hard get rewarded with good results, and I think our guys get rewarded for those things.”
Smyser also noted that day that his squad knew how to support each other rather than selfishly focus on their own scores.
“Even though Noah and Lane weren’t super happy about their own results, they were happy for Laithan,” Smyser commented. “They’re competitive with each other but also very supportive of each other.”
Senior Zach Burch, who ended the season as Palmyra's No. 5, finished the April home invite with an 80 to tie for fifth.
“(Burch) hasn’t gotten a lot of rounds in this year, and even last night he had some struggles in our match against South Shelby, and then he comes out today and shoots an 80,” Smyser said. “That’s a good score for most golfers in our area.”
Moving forward, Palmyra won the Centralia Invitational on Monday, April 17 thanks to a three-way logjam at the top of the leaderboard with the likes of Wilson, Sublette and Hammond.
On Tuesday, April 18, the Panthers remained undefeated on the season as they cruised to a triangular win over Highland and Clark County.
Wilson, a four-time state finalist, then fired a season-best 3-under-par 69 on Friday, April 21 to capture medalist honors at the South Shelby Invitational. The 18-hole season low also helped Palmyra to the team title with a score of 317 — 31 strokes better than second-place Macon.
“I haven’t really been playing all that well the last three or four weeks so I had a lesson with (golf specialist Mark Christensen),” Wilson noted that day. “My driver had been sporadic but after the lesson last night I put a lot of balls in the fairway today. And I was finally able to get some shots where I wanted them to go.”
Wilson was his normal dominant self Monday, April 24, when he turned in a 6-under-par 66 to earn medalist honors at the Tanglewood Quad. The Panthers easily won the meet with a team score of 311, 67 strokes ahead of second-place Highland.
Firing on all cylinders, Palmyra entered the postseason with confidence in their strong play.
The Panthers claimed the Clarence Cannon Conference championship on Wednesday, April 26, at Norwoods. Wilson shot an even 72 to earn CCC medalist honors for the third time in his career. Sublette and Hammond also claimed first-team honors, while Landon Merkel made the second team.
“We had four really good scores,” Smyser said after the conference championship. “We had four guys under 90. Anytime you do that you’ve got to feel like you’ve got a good chance of being in a good place at the end of the round.”
Palmyra rolled into the Class 2 District 6 tournament in Fulton on Tuesday, May 2 having never placed lower than first in any team competition this season.
While that streak ended at districts, the Panthers season did not.
Palmyra shot a team score of 336, earning a second-place finish to Tolton at districts to advance to the Class 2 sectionals.
Hammond led the Panthers at districts with a 6-over par 78 to tie for second overall, while Sublette finished one stroke behind at 79 and tied for fourth. Wilson tied for sixth with an 82.
All three earned all-district honors with their outings.
“For Lane and Laithan and all the guys, I’m excited for them,” Smyser said after the district tournament. “For Lane to go out there and play 6-over and Laithan to play 7-over on that course today, those are very respectable scores. Even Noah, not playing up to his expectations, still finished tied for sixth overall. It’s kind of about perspective a little bit.”
Heading into the sectional round, Palmyra knew it was at a crossroads. In 2016, this stage was where the Panthers team season came to an end. They badly wanted 2017 to be different.
Early in the sectional at Norwoods, Merkel walked toward a tee box with tears in his eyes. The Palmyra senior was 8-over-par through four holes, and he felt like he was letting his team down.
"What if all his team had worked for was for naught?" he wondered.
Smyser soon interjected.
“It wasn’t the start I wanted,” Merkel said later. “Coach pulled me off to the side, wrapped his arms around me and told me I needed to look past my start. He told me knew had faith in me and that I just needed to play my game and turn my round around.”
A couple hours later, Merkel’s eyes started to well up again.
Only this time it was tears of joy.
Merkel and his teammates had just learned they were headed to the state finals.
The Panthers finished second in the sectional team standings with a score of 330. The score was 10 strokes shy of sectional champions, Hermann, and three strokes ahead of third place Father Tolton Catholic. Only the top two teams advanced to the state championships.
“Knowing that my score helped us advance is such a great feeling,” said Merkel, who finished with a round of 90.
The Panthers were paced by Wilson’s even par round of 72. Sublette (82) and Hammond (86) rounded out the Panthers scoring.
With its ticket to state punched, Palmyra achieved a goal that was a year in the making.
“They all just battled,” Smyser said of his team after the sectional. “I could not be more proud of all of them today. This time last year they made it their goal to get to state, and now they accomplished that today. This is just the culmination of a ton of hard work on their part.”
It's safe to say the Panthers are disappointed by how the Class 2 finals finished Tuesday at Fremont Hills in Nixa, Missouri.
Palmyra and Hermann tied at the top of the Class 2 team standings with team scores of 627 after completing the two-round tournament. Sublette (147), Wilson (151) and Hammond (154) each finished among the top 10 individuals.
The fate of the state title came down to a tiebreaker — the score of each team's No. 5 golfer on the second day — and it didn't go the Panthers way.
“It sucks, no other way around it,” Smyser said of losing the tiebreaker. “It stings right now for the guys, but in a couple of days when it all sets in they will realize what a true accomplishment it was to be called the second-best golf team in Class 2 in the state of Missouri.”
Palmyra accomplished more than a number can show.
Courier-Post sports reporter Travis David contributed to this story.