MCS golf begins with bang

They can tap curving putts like big-time players, hit tee shots more than 230 feet and some have already played competitive golf for one or two years.

They are seventh and eighth-grade students who play for the Mariners Christian School boys' and girls' golf team. The school located in Costa Mesa is fielding its golf team for its first season.

Head coach Brian Jones, in his first year coaching golf at any level, has played for 22 years, never competitively. A fifth-grade teacher, he has coached basketball and football at the youth levels before.

"The program started from a vision between [Head of School] Bob Sladek and Kevin Martin, a parent and school board member," Jones said Friday at the Newport Beach Golf Course putting green. "Bob wanted to have us field a team since he started working with us. This is his second year."

Mariners Christian School already won its season opener, defeating Mission Hills Christian School of Rancho Santa Margarita in February, 141-171. No. 1 golfer Sean Willson, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, finished with a four-over-par score of 33 over nine holes. Connor Bass, 13-year-old eighth-grader Garrett Wayne and Richie Simons each shot a 36. Many of the players on the team have grown up together.

The Dolphins are playing three private school teams twice each this season. Those teams are Oakridge Private School of Orange, Calvary Christian School of Santa Ana and Mission Hills.

Mariners Christian School, which has students from kindergarten through eighth grade, has 680 students enrolled and 150 of those are in the seventh or eighth grade.

"There are very few middle school golf teams in Orange County," Jones said. "We had 22 kids who tried out. We were surprised at how many kids showed up. Eleven made the team, another eight made the practice squad. We want to spark interests from other schools [that don't have golf teams yet]. Some have played in individual tournaments, most played for fun."

Most of the students at Mariners Christian School usually go on to attend high school at Corona del Mar, Newport Harbor, Mater Dei in Santa Ana and Crean Lutheran in Irvine.

"The best part about playing on a middle school is preparing for a high school team," Bass said. "You get to meet different players while you're playing. The most challenging part is to keep my mind on my game, instead of worrying about theirs."

Willson said his short game needs work — a sentiment echoed by nearly all of his teammates. Willson has played golf for five years, nearly two in tournaments. He noted the difference between team and individual play.

"It's a different kind of game," Willson said. "When I'm playing individually, I'm more aggressive. In team play, I have to think about the team and not take shots that can get you into trouble."

Wayne is another 'young veteran' of sorts, playing for three years and this season is his first competitively.

"I was a little nervous at first, but I'm having a lot of fun," Wayne said. "This is probably my favorite sport. I try to keep up with the pros, learn the fundamentals, how they swing. I dream a little bit, hopefully get to their level someday."

Jones said the team is working on reaching its goals.

"Our biggest goals for the program is one, for the kids to have passion and excitement for the game," he said. "Two, for them to grow in overall skills and the third is to experience being on a team. The kids are having a great time. That's the most exciting thing for me as a head coach, is seeing how much fun they've been having."

Nicole Gehring is the only girl on the team and has held her own playing against the boys.

"I like it," said Gehring, who's also involved with volleyball and performed rhythmic gymnastics. "I played a little when I was a kid. I picked it back up last year. It's challenging because you have to focus on the ball. You never know where the ball is going to go."

Enzo Burtin likes playing the game as well.

"I think it's better, you get to interact with people," Burtin said. "I like being in the outdoors. You don't have to physically hurt your body. I've been doing well with my irons."

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