Talent performing at its peak level is an essential element in achieving a championship.
But claiming the ultimate prize is often the result of many details coming together like pieces converging to complete the puzzle at just the right time.
This particular jigsaw came together to form the Owasso boys’ golf team, the 2019 state championship edition.
First, consider how the pieces were configured coming into the season.
The Rams were expected to be in rebuild mode after losing three starters which included two of the best in the state in Austin Enzbrenner and Jared Strathe, who both went on to play for Division I schools.
Of the incoming five-man varsity Ram crew, none were seniors.
“If you’d of told me this at the beginning of the season, I would’ve had my doubts because we were so inexperienced,” said Owasso coach Corey Burd.
Freshman Ben Stoller, who is mature beyond his school classification but a freshman nonetheless, was entrusted as Owasso’s No. 1 bag. It was the first time Burd had bestowed the honor to a ninth grader.
“It’s kind of unique to have a freshman in that position,” Burd said of Stoller before the season. “But he’s very good. He’s very mature in his game for his age.”
Battle-tested juniors Brett Wilcoxen and Tyler Rhodes gave the Rams a solid trio. Both Wilcoxen and Rhodes had performed admirably in some of Owasso’s most important meets a season earlier.
Along with Stoller, junior Antonio Gilestra and sophomore Braden Lang were new to the varsity scene.
The spring began with promise as Owasso was victorious in its season-opening voyage down to the East Texas in the Twisted 54 Golf Tournament in early March.
But, as Burd figured, growing pains reared its ugly head for the young Rams.
Owasso finished seventh overall at Kickingbird Golf Club in the Edmond Memorial Invitational, then took fourth in its home course at Bailey Ranch. The Rams were never seriously in contention as Edmond North rolled to a 26-shot victory.
“We really felt bad,” Stoller said of the two tournament stretch in early April. “We played awful there. So we thought something’s got to change.”
It was a week following the Owasso Invitational when the Rams began to turn the tide on their season.
Getting over the hump
Battling miserable conditions at South Lakes Golf Course in Jenks, Owasso had a season-best three individuals finish in the top six and all five scored in the 70s. Lang paced the Rams with a 73 and the team totaled a 302 for first place in a tournament that included Edmond North and Stillwater.
“That was kind of my inclination that there was a little gravel in their game,” Burd said of the win at Jenks. “I thought, ‘ok, maybe they’re tougher than I thought.’”
The victory at South Lakes seem to build momentum as OHS followed with a top-three finish at Edmond North and a win at Forest Ridge Golf Course on April 26-27.
The Rams took a slim lead after the first day on the Broken Arrow course and increased that margin to eight strokes on the final round, a similar scenario to what played out at the state tournament on Edmond’s Rose Creek Golf Course.
“That tournament mattered a lot,” said Stoller. “We had been in that situation on a tough golf course where we had to put the ball in play. We had to make putts. We pulled it out there and pulled it out (at state).”
A couple of days later, Owasso saw its five-year reign as regional champions end at the hands of the Pioneers at Bailey Ranch. The result was not what the Rams had hoped for but there were encouraging signs.
Rhodes looked to be in prime postseason position with consecutive rounds of 1-under par and claimed top individual medalist honors with a one-stroke victory. Rhodes also extended Owasso’s streak of individual regional champions to six straight years.
Stoller and Wilcoxen followed with identical two-round scores of 3-over par as the Rams their top three bags firing and still had room for improvement.
“Our top three bags played pretty well,” Rhodes said following his regional win. “We just need one bag from four or five to shoot high 70s or 80 and we’ve got it.”
Despite the optimism of Rhodes and his Owasso teammates, most would have agreed a top-three finish at Rose Creek Golf Course in Edmond would position the young Rams well for a run at the state title going into the spring of 2020.
And that looked to be about where OHS might finish after a first round score of 304 in the morning, which placed the Rams in fourth in the team standings, 14 shots behind the Huskies. Considering Edmond North had run off with 13 of the last 14 state crowns, Owasso seemed to have already played itself out of contention.
Round to remember
Stoller, Wilcoxen, Lang and Rhodes returned to the course for the afternoon’s second round and played a round of 18 that may seem more like a legendary tale when it is surely recounted years in the future.
Stoller carded a 4-under par 68, the lowest score of any golfer in the round. Wilcoxen and Lang fired identical 1-under 71s. Rhodes followed up his even par morning round with a 74 as the Rams picked the perfect time to come up with their best round of the season of 284.
Owasso had shot a combined 4-under par and found itself with a two-shot lead and just 18 holes standing between it and the state championship.
“That round was absolutely amazing,” said Burd, whose squad was, at its peak, a combined 8-under par during the second round. “That makes everything seem possible. We were trying to be positive, but they just kept feeling it and feeling it.”
Another key to the Rams’ stellar performance on the first day was the play of Lang. After a tough outing at regionals the week prior, Lang carded rounds of 76 and 71 and found himself in a tie for sixth individually.
“I was really proud of Braden and how he played,” Burd said of the sophomore’s performance at state.
Carrying the momentum from the second round, Owasso found itself in an interesting spot. A Ram roster without a senior and just two members with prior state tournament experience was thrust into the role of the hunted.
“I didn’t sleep much,” Stoller recalled about the night before the final round.
Burd said the key for his team was to focus on the task, not the circumstances.
“We talk a lot about shot-by-shot, hole-by-hole specifics,” Burd said. “What are we going to do here? What’s on sight line and we map that out. So, when they get in a tense situation like this, we’re hoping the kids are looking at their book and just thinking about their plan, keep thinking about their plan.”
18 holes to glory
As anticipated, the final round was full of high drama and unexpected outcomes for the Rams.
On one hand, Rhodes, who had played himself into tie for fourth after the first day with a combined score of 2-over par, struggled in the final round and shot an 84.
And, although Rhodes’s score did not count toward the team total in the final round, Gilestra was there to fill the void. After shooting rounds of 87 and 86 over the first two rounds, the first-year varsity member gave his team a much-needed boost when he recorded a 79.
Gilestra had shanked his drive on No. 1 but recovered to par the hole and ended his round with birdie-birdie to stay in the 70s.
“I had been having issues with my mind game lately, too,” Gilestra said. “It just helped me keep going, making putts and getting up and down from a lot of places.”
Going into the closing stretch, the team title looked to be very much in doubt. It was a change in strategy that proved to be a difference maker for Owasso.
Following the first day, the Rams benefited from a shift in strategy on hole No. 18.
With a large pond surrounded by the fairways on holes No. 10 and 18, Burd instructed his team to aim for the fairway on No. 10, which was in play. The move avoided the possible water hazard and shrunk a portion of the distance from tee to green on No. 18.
“I really wasn’t sure but I was going to do what coach said,” said Stoller, who hit a 6-iron to within 10 feet that led to an eagle on No. 18. “It was a smart call.”
Stoller’s eagle highlighted Owasso’s 4-under par total on No. 18. The strategy for the 54th and last hole of the tournament proved to be pivotal.
And the strategy helped the Rams prove they could go toe-to-toe with Edmond North and Stillwater on the biggest stage and come out victorious.
“We’ve been clawing all year at them, always been in contention with them,” Wilcoxen said. “It feels good to finally beat them.”