By ryan buck
Two months’ work and six imposing golf courses are in their rear-view mirrors, but the final test remains for the junior finalists of The Vindicator’s Greatest Golfer of the Valley presented by Farmers National Bank.
The 6,304 yards and 18 holes of challenging angles, bunkers at every turn, water hazards and deceptive greens of Trumbull Country Club stand between former champions and local high school standouts and tournament titles Sunday.
Boardman freshman Jacinta Pikunas tasted victory in the inagural junior event in 2011. After a year away, she’d love nothing more than to experience the feeling again in the girls 15-17 division.
She’s only gotten better with age and experience.
“I’m going in with the same attitude I had the first year,” said Pikunas, who qualified with a round of 78 in a qualifier at Diamond Back Golf Course.
“I know there will be a bit more pressure, but I can’t think about that,” she said. “ I’ll play my best and see what happens.”
Pikunas has played in tournaments across America, including the Optimist International in Florida along with prestigious Ohio events like the Northern Ohio PGA Junior Series, the North Coast Golf Tour and the Kenny Novak Memorial tournaments.
She is almost robotic in her excellence, but clearly enjoys the shot-to-shot challenge. Focused and calm is how one would describe her presence from the first tee until she walks off the 18th green.
“I use it as I go on,” Pikunas said. “I try to stay relaxed and try to stay focused on each shot and one shot at a time. You can’t think about the results and just what I want with my shot. If it doesn’t go the way I want, I move on to the next one.”
And the possibility of becoming the first two-time champion in Greatest Golfer history?
“It would be such an honor,” she said.
Hickory standout Billy Colbert, who fired a tournament-low 74 at Pine Lakes Golf Club in May, returns in the 15-17 boys division.
Colbert fell out of contention late in last year’s round, but he is once again crossing the border prepared to win.
“My game’s been getting better,” said Colbert, who has anchored the Hickory varsity since his freshman season. “I’ve been playing in a couple big tournaments, trying to keep it consistent.”
He’s more accustomed to the tree-lined fairways and rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania, having played mostly in and around Pittsburgh, but he brings a sharpened aspect of his game to Ohio when he can.
“I tend to drop some more putts and chip a little closer.” Colbert said of his short game, effective when he can’t match big hitters off the tee. “It’s there for me right now. Whenever I do get in trouble, it’s the short game that saves me.”
Poland’s Jason McQuown, who qualified with a 77 at the Pines Lakes qualifier, has faced similar competition in recent years.
Along with tournaments in the PGA Junior Series and stops at the Kenny Novak events, he has traveled to North Carolina’s Pinehurst Village and its famed courses to compete against America’s top young talent.
A week there in December enriched an already solid game for McQuown, who was second in last year’s Greatest Golfer final.
He enjoyed his round last summer, but was not satisfied.
“I didn’t have my best stuff last year,” said McQuown, who will have his choice of college suitors after his senior high school season concludes.
He has a better idea of Trumbull’s layout and what it will take this time around, even identifying 75 as a score that will put him in contention.
“The course is shorter, but if you land the ball in the right spot in the fairway, you can look for just in front of the green or on it,” McQuown said. “If you look for par, the birdies will come.”
Pikunas, Colbert and McQuown will lead the 15-17 year-old field of boys and girls as another talented field of players 12-14 will follow.
The first tee time will be Sunday at 1 p.m. Four division winners will be crowned at the end of the event.
For all tournament coverage, see The Vindicator in print and on-line at vindy.com/golf.