Jed Curtis is among the head coaches on the Evanston athletic staff who always encourage athletes to play more than one sport.
But in the uncertain times caused by the coronavirus pandemic since last March, it’s the ability to focus on just one sport that might have led a couple of Wildkits to postseason success.
Both Campbell Wagener and Jacob Lipman punched tickets to the Class 3A Conant Sectional tournament next Monday by earning top 5 individual finishes Wednesday at the Loyola Academy Regional.
Wagener, a state finals qualifier as a junior, won’t get a chance to repeat that success no matter how he fares at the sectional because the Illinois High School Association will not conduct state finals in any fall sport during the pandemic. The IHSA also limited the number of sectional qualifiers — cutting the field down to just 2 team qualifying spots and 4 individuals who aren’t members of those teams — to keep the competitors safely apart this postseason.
Wagener might have preferred to spend the off-season sharpening his skating skills — he’s also an All-State hockey player — while Lipman’s focus likely would have been more on baseball this summer.
But the pandemic shut down both of those sports while enough golf courses stayed open this summer to allow both standouts to work on their games.
Wagener placed third at the regional with a score of 75 — 5 over par — while Lipman kept his season alive with a string of birdies on the back 9 that produced a qualifying score of 76 on a sunny Wilmette Golf Club course. As a team, ETHS settled for a non-qualifying effort of 310 behind New Trier (299) and host Loyola Academy (301) in the reduced 8-team field.
Also competing were Niles West (325), Notre Dame (341), Lane Tech (351), Taft (358) and Niles North (405).
Wagener’s strong start produced enough of a cushion for the senior to “stagger” to a 75 after he carded 3 bogeys on his last 3 holes to close out his round. His lone birdie came on the No. 10 hole.
“When I got to the 14th hole I was 2 over, so I knew I was fine,” admitted Wagener. “So I wasn’t too stressed out by those bogeys.
“I didn’t have any hockey over the summer because of COVID-19, so I played a lot more golf. I really wasn’t playing all that great (in the summer), but I had a good round against Loyola (74) when we played them and from then on I played with a lot more confidence. I think my mental game is a lot better this year because I’ve simplified my game. I’m hitting the fairways and greens more often now.
“Managing two sports has always been an issue for me, physically and mentally, because they both go full steam once school opens. The mechanics of my golf swing are definitely affected by hockey and when I was a freshman and sophomore, I had a swing that was like a hard slapshot. I finally figured that out.
“I definitely miss hockey. This whole season definitely feels different — we didn’t even know if we’d have a golf sectional until a couple of weeks ago —but now I’m almost treating the sectional like it’s the state tournament. We always play in the strongest regional and sectional in the state, and once we heard there was going to be a sectional, that gave us some motivation. I’ve never felt like I wasn’t playing for anything.”
Lipman was part of the ETHS team that qualified for the sectional a year ago, but playing out of the No. 6 spot in the Wildkit lineup Wednesday, he didn’t expect to survive for another week. He shot a 39 over the first 9 holes, then finished with a 37 to advance.
The Wildkits also counted a 40-39-79 by Tejas Baichwal and a 40-40-80 by Peter Barbato. Also competing for ETHS were Thomas Haller (44-37-81) and Henry Blickenstaff (43-41-84).
“I always play better on the back 9,” Lipman explained. “But it helped me today to tee off first for us, because I just relaxed and played my game right from the start.
“I had a bogey on No. 10 and a double bogey on No. 11, so I was 7 over at that point. Then I went par, birdie, birdie, and then I thought oh, I’ve got a shot (at qualifying). I was 1-under the last 6 holes. With only 2 teams and 4 extra guys advancing to the sectional, I knew I needed to be in the mid-70s this year to have a chance. I knew I had to give it my all.”
Lipman practiced almost daily at Glencoe Golf Club over the summer and played countless 18-hole rounds. “I really zoned in on my short game and everything improved,” he said. “I worked on my approach shots, from 140 yards in, and by doing that I always seem to get a good look at a birdie. I practiced my wedge shots, from 50-60 feet in, a lot, too. Approach shots are what get you those birdies.”
“Today wasn’t our best day as a team, but it wasn’t far off,” Curtis pointed out. “Every kid fought right to the end and I was very encouraged by the way they all finished.
“I’ve had so much fun coaching these guys this year. This is the deepest team I’ve ever had, with 12 seniors, and they’ve all been friends since they went to junior high. They really root for each other, and they also push each other to be better every day. It was fierce competition week to week just to see who got into the lineup, and they handled it like champs.
“Both Cam and Jacob played more golf than they ever have in the summer, and it paid off for them today. Jacob is a baseball guy who made golf his priority and he’s a tremendous ball striker who hits it a long way. He really worked hard on his short game, and I knew all along that he had it in him to get hot like that today.
“Cam has really been our steadiest golfer all year. He’s an incredibly mature golfer who thinks his way around the course, and he has all the shots, too.”