WEST CHICAGO – Golfers worldwide revere Scotland’s St. Andrews as the sport’s unofficial birthplace.
The course of the same name in western DuPage County comes without such prestige – or the “Home of Golf” trademark – though it undoubtedly has coddled many Tri-Cities teens in their development.
For the past few years, St. Charles North senior Dan Shepherd reluctantly was one of them. Even as St. Andrews hosted scores of summer junior events and key high school meets such as Wednesday’s Upstate Eight Conference River Division Tournament, Shepherd showed indifference to a layout that never seemed to complement his game.
A two-under-par 69 went a long way in changing his mind. Recently removed from a revelation during a scramble outing here, Shepherd shined as medalist to help the North Stars pull past a top-heavy field and capture the conference tournament and overall crown.
“When I went out and played this a few weeks ago, I hit the ball a lot farther now, so I was like, ‘All right, maybe I can do something good
here,’ ” Shepherd said. “I started liking the course a little bit more, so I started coming out here with more of a positive attitude, and I’m sure that helped.”
If he keeps it up, he could earn a return trip for the Class 3A St. Charles East Sectional in two weeks.
It’s all but certain Shepherd will be flanked by several familiar faces should he advance from Tuesday’s Larkin Regional at The Highlands of Elgin.
The field includes all seven UEC River teams, plus DeKalb and South Elgin.
North – which scored a 311 Wednesday – will look to absorb another charge from close pursuers Geneva (321), Batavia (323) and East (329), the second- through fourth-place tournament finishers.
Each of the Tri-Cities teams carried no more than two conference dual losses into the tournament, creating what North Stars coach Rob Prentiss called an unprecedented, winner-take-all situation.
“Whoever won won the conference today,” Geneva’s Colin Lillibridge said. “Going in, we were hoping everyone could put in a score below 80, but we didn’t get that today.”
Lillibridge paced a consistent Vikings’ effort with a 78, getting help from fellow top-10 overall finishers Pat Cuscaden (80) and Nate Desens (81).
North had just two golfers in the top 10, but their scores made the difference. Raghav Cherala shot 76, good for third overall, and edged Shepherd by one half-point to repeat as UEC River Boys Golfer of the Year.
Ryan DalDegan (82) and Matt Samuelson (84) were next for the North Stars.
“Building up to this tournament, we had a lot of confidence,” Cherala said. “We knew what we were capable of, and we accomplished it.”
Shepherd admittedly drew inspiration from a Tuesday trip to Medinah Country Club to watch the Ryder Cup Captains & Celebrity Challenge.
He took special notice of U.S. team member Jason Dufner, a beacon, he says, for “everyday-type people.”
“He’s got an extraordinary ability to play golf, and he just goes about his business and does it the way he knows it,” Shepherd said. “I was just trying to do that today.
“I got out on the range and I was hitting the ball really well, and so I had to take advantage of what a nice day it was.”
St. Charles East senior Max Kelly embraced a similar approach in his final conference tournament. Sensing pressure to perform in recent rounds, he exhaled and turned in a 75, the second-best score among River golfers that tied for fourth-best on the course.
The UEC Valley tournament was played simultaneously but scored separately. Nick Rouches of Valley champion Neuqua Valley (306) and Waubonsie Valley’s Austin Datz carded separate 74s.
Playing with Lillibridge, Shepherd and Batavia’s Nathan Podraza – one of four Bulldogs to shoot 81 – Kelly pushed Shepherd with successive birdies on Nos. 1 and 2, which served as the beginning of the group’s “back nine.”
A string of bogeys on holes 5-7 snapped further delusions of grandeur, but did not sour Kelly’s attitude toward his longtime friend. Before Shepherd rolled in a 15-foot putt for his sixth birdie on the No. 9, finishing, hole, Kelly leaned in.
“I’m like, ‘Dan, you already killed me,’” Kelly said. “’Just go make this putt, dude.’”
Billy Zwick led Batavia with an 80, finishing fifth among individuals. Winning scorecard tiebreakers with fellow Bulldogs Podraza and Peter Rudd, Jon Hvasta and Danny Ritchason joined Zwick in the top 10.
Connor McCadam (82) followed Kelly for the Saints.
“It was a four-way race to the top,” Batavia coach Tim DeBruycker said, “and we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other, maybe even back here.”
With the postseason looming, that’s the idea.
For Shepherd, it’s a more comforting one by the round.