Mike Sage knows his Riverside Poly golf team has the talent to exorcise its demons from the last two years and win a Southern Section title, but the coach doesn't have to look far to see it won't be easy.
Loaded with talent the last two seasons, Poly has fallen one stroke short of qualifying for the section finals twice, but with seniors Josh Wooding, Phil Telliard and Ian Hjulberg, Sage has high hopes.
"I don't think it's necessarily do or die," Sage said. "I don't want to put that kind of pressure on us."
Poly's top three players are headed for Division I colleges. Wooding, the defending Southern Section individual champion, has signed with USC, Telliard with Arizona State and Hjulberg with UC Riverside.
All three finished in the top 20 in the section finals, and Wooding and Telliard were in the top 10 at the California Interscholastic-Southern California Golf Assn. finals.
"Those guys have dedicated themselves to this team for their senior year," Sage said. "I don't think they want to come up a stroke short again. Certainly, the potential is there, but there are so many good teams out there."
Many of those are in Poly's backyard:
* Palm Desert is the defending CIF-SCGA champion. Seann Harlington led the Aztecs to that title last year by shooting a three-under-par 69 as a freshman. Kyle Forbes, who shot a team-best 73 when Palm Desert was runner-up at the Southern Section finals, also returns.
* Murrieta Valley was the surprise team in 2002, when it finished third at the Southern Section finals and fifth at the CIF-SCGA finals. Four of the Nighthawks' top five players return.
* La Quinta also had a breakthrough season with a sixth-place finish at the section finals. La Mirada transfer James Lee, one of the top junior players in the nation, will bolster a lineup that could end Palm Desert's 14-year league championship streak.
"Is this the year? I don't know," La Quinta Coach Scott McGhion said. "I hope it is. I would love for this to be the year, but when Palm Desert has to play well, they always seem to. When it counts, they seem to get it done."
Temecula Valley, Chaparral and Temescal Canyon are other Riverside County schools with solid teams.
"It used to be Orange County teams dominated," Murrieta Valley Coach Greg Ireland said. "But we're finally starting to shoot scores that are respectable."
It's no surprise these schools are becoming golf powers. According to the National Golf Foundation, 58 courses opened between Santa Barbara and San Diego from 1997 to 2002, and 28 of those were in Riverside County.
"Of course [Riverside County] is getting better in golf," said Aaron Solis, coach of Santa Barbara San Marcos, the defending section champion.
"Look at where all the houses are going up. Look at where all the golf courses are. It wouldn't surprise me if all the champions started coming from that area."