Until last week, Matthew Barbato had never shot a round of 18 holes of golf with a score below 70. But the Evanston senior could get used to this.

Off to a blazing start, Evanston’s No. 1 golfer shot a 3-under-par 67 Tuesday as the Wildkit boys made their season debut at Sportsman’s Golf Course in Northbrook. Barbato claimed medalist honors as ETHS finished with a team score of 310, with Glenbrook North (305) and Prospect (316) rounding out the triangular field.

Counting two tryout round scores of 66 and 68 in the pre-season, Barbato has now recorded sub-par rounds in three of his last four outings.

“It’s crazy to come out of the blocks like this,” said Barbato, who qualified for the Illinois High School Association sectional as both a sophomore and junior but has yet to earn his first trip to the state finals. “I’ve never been in the 60s before, and now I’ve done it three times out of four.”

Evanston also counted a 79 by junior Leo Lynk, an 80 by junior Tom Barbato (Matthew’s brother) and an 84 by Nick Basso.

“This is so exciting for Matt to start like this,” said ETHS head coach Jed Curtis. “He had a really nice sophomore year for us, but his junior he had a lot of expectations and felt a lot of pressure, and when it wasn’t happening for him, he struggled a lot with the ups and downs. He was upset 80 percent of the time after his rounds last year.

“Now he’s as mature a golfer as I’ve ever had, with the way he thinks out there and with the way he controls his emotions. That tryout stretch (also including a 77) was the greatest preseason stretch of anyone I’ve had. He’s hitting the ball really well and he knows that when you get to the level he’s at, you just take dead aim and hit the shot that’s in front of you.

“He loves the game and wants to be the best he can be, and he’s really enjoying the game now.”

“This was clearly the best off-season I’ve ever had, and what happened last year definitely fueled all the hard work I did,” Barbato said. “My mental game has come a long way. That’s one of the things that really held me back last year. I’d start thinking about my numbers too much during a round, instead of just letting it flow.

“Now, I’m more patient and I’m more relaxed out there. I’m not as amped up as when I was younger. It used to make me so angry whenever I hit a bad shot. When you’re hitting the ball as well as I am right now, there’s not a lot to be frustrated about, of course. But what’s allowing me to score this well (5 birdies on Tuesday) is that now I just see every hole as an opportunity to make a birdie.

“The season is only two months long and I know it’s important not to get down on myself when things aren’t going well. It will be big for me to stay on an even keel and not get too high or too low. I need to stay level mentally.”

Barbato’s last summer tournament was the Illinois Junior Golf Association Chick Evans Junior Amateur, where he shot back-to-back rounds of 72 and 76 and just missed advancing to the match play portion of the tourney.

The sweet-swinging senior will play a crucial role if the Wildkits can make it back to the IHSA state finals for the first time as a team since 2013. Curtis believes he has the pieces to build toward that postseason goal.

“I’m very excited and very encouraged about what I’ve seen so far,” Curtis said. “Will we get back to where we were in 2013? Only time will tell. But these guys are a bunch who have worked hard and played a lot of tournaments this summer. We have a lot of depth and we had our largest turnout (14 players on the varsity level and 27 on the frosh-soph level) in a number of years. I think playing golf has a little more cachet now, it’s not just knocking the ball around. And I think having that 2013 team make it to State created a little more awareness, too.”

Seniors Caleb Spalding and Owen Shapiro will lend a veteran presence, backed up by juniors like Lynk, Tommy Barbato, Henry Goodman and Carson Sherwood.

“Caleb really loves the game, and he worked hard over the winter and summer to get better,” Curtis praised. “He’s thinking more creatively when he’s around the green and he’s learned not to grab the same club every time when it comes to his short game. He shot a 72 in a tournament this summer and he just understands how to go out there and make pars.”

Evanston will face its first 18-hole tournament test on Wednesday at the Purple Raider Classic tournament in Bloomington, site of the IHSA state finals.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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