State_Golf_advance

North Gwinnett’s Alice Acosta watches her tee shot during the 2018 Area 4-AAAAAAA Championships at Summit Chase Country Club.

Having home field advantage can be a big factor for any team, especially in a state championship final situation.

That even includes a game like golf, and home course advantage is something that some of the boys and girls teams and individual competitors representing 11 different Gwinnett schools will enjoy when the Georgia High School Association’s state championship tournaments commence Monday and Tuesday.

Technically, both the boys and girls tournaments in Class AAAAAAA will be hosted by Gwinnett schools, though the girls will have to travel a few miles up Interstate 85 North into Banks County to tee off for the 36-hole over two days event at Chimney Oaks Golf Club in Homer.

Still, some of the players among the the four Gwinnett team qualifiers — host North Gwinnett, Mill Creek, Peachtree Ridge and Brookwood — as well as individual qualifier Lilly Hart of Parkview, have played the course before.

North coach John Payne hopes any familiarity his Bulldogs have can play to their advantage as they try to defend last year’s state title, though he says the course itself could even the playing field.

“We have not played (at Chimney Oaks) a lot before,” Payne said. “But I don’t think any team has played there a lot. I know it’s hosted some smaller classification (high school) tournaments before. The one time we played it (recently), and I’ve heard this from others who have played it, it’s a challenging course. … The greens are probably tough and firm in terms of receiving approach shots.

“There’s no question in my mind that Lambert is the prohibitive favorite, but a bunch of us will be fighting hard, too. I think Mill Creek or Peachtree Ridge or us have a chance to finish in the top five, and maybe all of us. … If any team can just hang around after Day 1, if they’re in the neighborhood, that may put pressure on (Lambert). You just don’t want them to run away with it (early).”

There is another storyline that will follow the Bulldogs, aside from trying to hold onto the team title over Lambert, which had won the previous five titles in the state’s highest classification. It will not only mark the final high school tournament for a large group of seniors, including preseason Super Six selection Alice Acosta and Lauren Maher, but also Payne, who will be retiring after the season.

“It’s all a kind of happy closing chapter for all of us,” Payne said. “And going out together is great.”

Gwinnett’s AAAAAAA boys team will have more of a true home course advantage for its tournament at Hamilton Mill Golf Club in Dacula.

Pretty much all of the county’s competitors — the North, Mill Creek and Brookwood teams and individuals Will Garrison of Norcross and Ethan Kelly of Collins Hill — have played the course before.

Mill Creek has won the last two team titles, including one two years ago on its other home course at the Chateau Elan Legends Club, which could be a good omen.

The unpredictability of golf is something North coach Bryan Sellers says could be a great equalizer as his Bulldogs challenge not only Mill Creek, but also a host of teams from Area 3-AAAAAAA, which had six different teams post qualifying scores of 311 or better in its tournaments, plus other strong contenders like Hillgrove, Lowndes and Tift County.

“Golf is a funny game,” Sellers said. “You never know how it’s going to turn out. … It just depends on who has the best two days. I think there are 10 to 12 teams that are capable of putting up good numbers, and you can’t count out Mill Creek because it’s their home course.

“Any course that you play that you know is an advantage. Our guys play over at (Hamilton Mill) occasionally, and I’m hoping it helps us. Us and Brookwood have had matches with Mill Creek over there before. Talking to my guys, we’re comfortable and confident. We’ve put up some good numbers this year.”

As Sellers pointed out, course layout and conditions are just some of the factors that could play a role in determining which teams and individuals fare well.

There are also plenty of unforeseen factors, something Wesleyan boys coach Andy Free knows all too well.

The Wolves will be without standout junior Will Stakel, who shot a school record 68 to win low medalist honors at the Area 2-A (Private) tournament late last month, when they compete at the Class A (Private) tournament at Green Island Country Club in Columbus due to a death in his family.

As much as his absence will be felt and while the rest of the Wolves will be thinking of their teammate and his family, they will have to focus on trying to compete — something Free is confident they can do.

“It’s pretty rotten circumstances,” Free said. “But we’ve got five kids who can shoot in the 70s. If they do shoot in the 70s, we’ve got a chance to compete. We’ll do the best with what we’ve got.”

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Graduated from GSU in 1990. Have worked in sports journalism for the past 28 years, covering a variety of sports at the Gwinnett Daily News, AJC, Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser and Marietta Daily Journal before returning to Gwinnett at the Post in 2007.