The down side for Evanston golfer Matt Barbato after qualifying for the Illinois High School Association Class 3A sectional tournament last year as a sophomore was the pressure he put on himself to do it again.
But Barbato managed to deal with those high expectations and accomplish that feat again Tuesday at the Glenbrook North Regional tournament.
Barbato and Evanston teammates Jordan Wallace and Jay Wilson grabbed the last 3 individual qualifying spots for next Monday’s New Trier Sectional tourney, advancing through the state’s toughest regional at Sportsman’s Country Club in Northbrook.
Evanston placed 5th in the team standings with a season-best total of 327, trailing only sectional qualifiers Loyola Academy (287), Glenbrook South (289) and New Trier (291) along with non-qualifier Glenbrook North (295) in the 9-team field.
Both Barbato and Wallace fired 80s on a perfectly calm day at Sportsman’s, a stark contrast to the blustery conditions on the same course a week ago at the Central Suburban League South tournament. Wilson had to wait to the bitter end to find out if his 82 would also make the cut — and it did.
Under IHSA rules, the top three teams automatically advanced and the next 10 individuals who aren’t members of those squads also qualified. The drama lasted until the last New Trier entrant turned in his score — and that cinched Wilson’s chance to play another day.
“New Trier is our rival, but I was very happy to root for them because we knew that would open up a spot for Jay,” said Evanston head coach Jed Curtis. GBN did qualify 5 individuals ahead of the Wildkits — but New Trier would have had 6 individual scores that counted against ETHS if the team finish had been reversed. And Wilson’s season would have been over then.
“Today was our best team score of the season and that’s really exciting for our guys. It was great to see how this culminated for us. We’ve been playing a lot better lately, and today we did a great job of keeping the big numbers off the scorecard.
“I told Matt (Barbato) he had to stay in the present and just keep grinding. Today he had to have a short memory and not worry about the last shot. And Jordan had the lowest competitive round of his (ETHS) career, and what a time to do it! He made a lot of good decisions today, and even when he got in trouble, he was able to get out of it.”
Barbato set the bar high for himself coming into the season and wasn’t even regarded as Evanston’s No. 1 player by the second half of the season. That distinction belonged to his younger brother Tommy, who carded a 90 on Tuesday. Evanston also counted an 85 by Josh Shawver-Weiner toward the overall team total.
“The last week or so things have started to come around for me,” Barbato said. “I did have a lot of expectations for myself after making it to sectional last year. I was struggling with my ball flight, hitting too many slices, but mostly I was a little too fixated on my scores and on pressing to play well, instead of just letting the game come to me.
“Today I just had to remember that I didn’t need a heroic number out there — just steady numbers. I stepped outside myself and tried not to press. I only hit 5 greens today, but most of the time I did a good job of getting up and down. Now I know my swing is there and this gives me a ton of confidence going into the sectional. Now I know that even when I’m not playing my best, I can still grind out a (good) score.”
Wallace, a senior playing out of the No. 6 slot for ETHS, tore up the front nine with a 2-over-par 37 on his way to a career-low round.
He definitely saved his best for last — or next to last, since he’s moving on to the sectional.
“I played a practice round here yesterday and that helped calm my nerves, and it helped me see the shots I needed to hit,” Wallace said after chalking up 2 birdies. “I was all over the place off the tee, but I did a really good job of keeping the ball in play and I had a really good short game. My putting was what dictated the round today. That really helped me a ton.
“A lot of rounds this year have gotten away from me. I’ve really been working hard on my short game and today it came out for me. I had the best summer I’ve ever had this year, so I thought this was possible, but the season didn’t go as well as I hoped it would. This past week I think I found my game again.”
Wilson shaved a whopping 8 strokes off his score on the same course (under worse conditions) at the CSL South meet. That 82 total included a birdie on the No. 4 hole, a hole he bogeyed at the conference meet.
“I have shot a couple of 82s this year, but I haven’t been very consistent,” he admitted. “I’m just glad to shoot it when it counts the most. My goal this year was just to make the regional team, so I just made the most of my opportunity.
“Today I hit the ball well off the tee and left myself in more good situations. Compared to last week, I tightened things up a lot.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.