Normally when you have a lineup dominated by one class, like the Hillsboro boys golf program did over the last few years with the class of 2020, the other ages have a tendency to suffer. Fortunately for the Toppers, nothing could be further from the truth in Hillsboro’s case.
Instead of just relying on last year’s seniors to carry them and neglecting the future, former coach Jeff Eickhoff and current coach Jim Luckett made sure to work with the younger players, getting them experience not only in practice and JV matches, but also in varsity matches, where they not only held their own, but frequently beat their varsity opponents during the 2019-2020 season.
The scores that the younger players would put up last year would translate into success this year, despite an odd season that resulted in few matches, less practice time and more uncertainty due to COVID-19. In the end, the only thing certain was that Topper golf is still a force to be reckoned with in the area.
Unofficially, Hillsboro went 14-3 on the season, with all three losses coming to Vandalia, who may have been the best team in the state. Even with that status, the Toppers kept it close with the Vandals, losing by three and seven strokes at the Hillsboro Country Club and by 12 at Oak Terrace Resort in Pana.
Vandalia also dethroned Hillsboro as conference champ after four straight by the Hiltoppers, putting together a stellar 297 at Indian Springs with three players in the top three.
Hillsboro would be a solid second, shooting a 339 to beat third place Litchfield by seven, with Dom Haggard and Preston Lyerla in the top ten to make all-conference.
Similar results would follow in the regional at Timber Lakes in Staunton, with Vandalia winning with a 298 and Hillsboro finishing in third with a 337. Alton Marquette would take second with a 326, claiming the only other automatic qualifying spot, but Hillsboro did qualify four players for the sectional individually, the most of any school.
Drake Vogel, Dillon Smail, Dom Haggard and Preston Lyerla would all qualify for the Ziegler-Royalton Sectional at the Franklin Country Club in West Frankfort, with Vogel scoring a 17th place finish in a loaded field to end the season with a bang.
Vogel’s finish was expected as he was the most consistent of the Toppers from start to finish this season. While he didn’t earn medalist honors in any of Hillsboro’s nine matches, his play was as steady as can be, with only three strokes separating his best nine-hole round (a 40 at Carlinville) and his worst (a 43 at Hillsboro).
The only player to have his score used in every match this season, Vogel was named the team’s MVP and posted an unofficial team-best nine-hole stroke average of 41.56.
Tad Daniels, one of two seniors on this year’s squad, wasn’t far off Vogel’s scoring average with a 42.78 and had his score used in eight of the nine matches.
Daniels, one of the only players with some varsity experience coming into the season, medalled twice this year for the Toppers with a 1-over-par 37 in the season opener and a 3-over 39 in the home finale at the Hillsboro Country Club.
Both he and Riggs, a pure athlete and all-conference goalkeeper who came out for golf after the soccer season was pushed back to spring, will be missed next year.
Like Daniels, Dom Haggard also has varsity experience, which will be key for the Toppers next year as they try to improve on this year’s success. Haggard had his ups and downs, but was as good as anyone when he was on, averaging a 43 per nine holes with three medalist performances in addition to all-tournament honors at Taylorville and the conference tournament.
Haggard and Vogel are just two of the five juniors who made up the majority of Luckett’s top six this year. All three put up big numbers in different spots and were key to the Toppers’ success.
Dillon Smail averaged a 44.13 for nine holes, shooting a season best 39 on Sept. 10 at Hillsboro. He was also the Toppers’ low man at the regional, shooting an 82 against some of the area’s best to finish seventh.
Preston Lyerla averaged a 46.22 for nine holes, with back-to-back 41s at Oak Terrace his best rounds of the year. While he was solid in the postseason, earning a sectional spot, he was at his best in the SCC tournament, where he placed eighth overall with an 82.
Devin Speiser, another all-conference soccer player from Coach Jason Burke’s squad who decided to play golf after the season was delayed, averaged a 47.33 for nine holes this year. While not his sport of choice for his first two years of high school, golf has always been close to Speiser’s family, including cousin Matt DeLuka, with whom he used to play with in Hillsboro Country Club events. That connection showed as Speiser shot a few strokes better at home, including a season low 42 on Sept. 10.
Even with the challenges, it was a good year for the Toppers, with more wins on the horizon with Vogel, Lyerla, Haggard and Smail set to return at the least.
As far as the other spots, only two other players were listed on the roster, freshmen Austin Loskot and Hayden Titsworth, meaning that some reserves are needed for the future of Hillsboro boys golf to remain rosy.
Add in that Vandalia returns all but one player and Litchfield brings back a ton of young talent as well and the Toppers could have an uphill climb ahead of them in the future.
But it’s looked that way on paper before and there is a reason why the Hillsboro golf program has been so good for so long. There may be challenges ahead, but it would be foolhardy to count the Toppers out of anything just yet.