In the 2017-18 season, the Charleston High School golf team entered the IHSA Class 2A Effingham regional alongside Mattoon High School, an obvious cross-town rival and a squad that the Trojans finished a combined 87 strokes ahead of in two tournaments on the year.
On October 3, 2017, though, the Green Wave changed the tides as Nick Nguyen and Brock Moncel set the pace for Mattoon with 74-stroke rounds en route to a first place team finish and a spot at the Salem sectional.
“I feel like that car ride home was pretty silent,” said Preston Smith, a junior for Charleston at the time.
At that point, all the Charleston players knew was that they would have a chance to redeem themselves at the sectional tournament under a week later with a chance at the state finals on the line.
Now, Smith, Ben Lanman and Keegan Gowin know that they went on to win back-to-back state championships to mark Charleston’s first and second of all time, before signing to play together about five minutes down the road at Eastern.
Oh, and they would join forces with Nguyen on the Panthers squad as they all get coached by Moncel’s father, Mike.
Maybe it made sense for the hometown connection from the three former Trojans to continue considering their relationship that brought them together on the golf course in the first place.
As born-and-raised Charleston kids, Smith, Lanman and Gowin were friends before they began taking golf seriously in middle school, but even that transition was a joint effort.
“Once these guys started playing around eighth grade, and it just became fun to go out and play,” Lanman said. “Everybody just started to take it serious from there.”
“I think it made easier to want to go out and practice because we all had each other,” Gowin said, “so we just kept practicing and kept going out more and more each summer, really.”
All three were internally competitive, and they say they played so often because they wanted to beat each other despite the irony that, according to the IHSA and the NCAA, they have never officially competed against each other.
That cannot be said for Nguyen, who joined Eastern’s golf team last season after graduating a year before the trio of Trojans.
Nguyen’s high school story, from losing a grip on first place in the individual state title between rounds one and two of his junior year to finishing in the top five the next season with none of his teammates qualifying to play alongside him, is a tumultuous one.
Smith, Lanman and Gowin did not make Nguyen’s life any easier in the standings, but he said making the mental adaptation from competitors to teammates became easy over time.
“It was weird, the idea, at first, knowing we had some good battles for three years in high school, especially me and Ben,” Nguyen said, “but we play golf together a lot and are close friends outside the golf course, so the transition is real smooth, and I love it.”
Since Smith, Lanman and Gowin found familiarity on the roster and coaching staff and the geographic move was simple, the three former Charleston golfers said the toughest part of the transition was the competition itself.
They added that even getting the opportunity to compete in tournaments was no longer a given like in high school.
Smith said Romeo Perez, a senior from France on the team this season, helped the newcomers out with a simple phrase: “Keep calm, there’s a lot of golf.”
Perez hails from Paris — a bit further away than some of his younger teammates — but he brings with him some veteran experience, great play and a sound mentality for Smith, Lanman and Gowin.
“I make sure they don’t put too much pressure on themselves,” Perez said. “Freshmen usually put a lot of pressure on themselves because they want to prove that they are good golfers, so I told them that we already know that they are good and that they don’t need this extra pressure.”
Perez boasted the team low in stroke average during his sophomore and junior years, but after four tournaments of the 2019 fall season, Lanman and Gowin have him beat while Smith is just over two strokes back per round.
In fact, Lanman opened the season as the low man at the Murray State Invitational, as he carded a 3-over-par 20th-place finish.
Smith recorded his low-round of the season at the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawk Invitational in the third tournament of the season, and Gowin closed it out in his only appearance of the season with a 2-under-par 14th place finish in the final event of fall play.
Their play is not unprecedented at Eastern, but it is certainly a pleasant injection to a program that has not finished in the upper half of any tournament standings since 2016.
The trio seem to know they have something to prove.
“In Charleston, we were not known as a golf team at all, so we’re just trying to get ourselves known a little bit,” Gowin said.
“It’s like the exact same situation as we started in high school,” Lanman said, “but we’ve also got more good players around us. In high school, we only had 900 kids in our whole high school. There’s not going to be that many good golfers.”
As far as the Eastern Illinois golf program is concerned, there were at least three.
Oscar Rzodkiewicz can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]