By Teddy Rydquist
Leader Staff Writer
Like every other Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) spring sport, the Oxford Wildcats boys’ golf program had their 2020 season canceled, citing concerns over the coronavirus (COVID-19).
With this one-year delay now in the rear-view mirror, the Wildcats have returned to action in 2021 and have performed as one of the top few teams in the Oakland Activities Association (OAA) White Division, most recently finishing in third-place in their second league tournament of the season at Glen Oaks in Farmington Hills on May 13.
Between competitions and practice rounds, the young men on the team hone their craft each weekday at Devil’s Ridge, while the two junior varsity teams, Blue and Gold, are afforded the same luxury at Copper Hills and Oxford Hills, respectively.
These three businesses do not charge Oxford High School for the use of their facilities, demonstrating a generosity only found in small towns like ours, they donate their tee times to the program.
“They don’t charge us anything at all to play those courses, it’s 100 percent donation,” head varsity coach Tony Frias shared.
“Coach (Terry) Kelley, who was my previous coach, was the one that kind of established that. You go to these other schools and you ask, and they all pay to play. We’re one of the only schools – and we have three courses – that all donate that money and that time.
“It’s phenomenal. We take a lot of their tee times, and them being flexible with us because it’s a business at the end of the day. You’re not going to a football field in the backyard of the school, you are imposing on a business and it’s public people you’re dealing with.
“Their generosity, they’re probably why we have a golf program.”
After leading the junior varsity program for four years, Frias is in his first season as the varsity head coach and assists Gretchen Gabler’s girls’ program by coaching the junior varsity in the fall, as well. A 2008 Oxford High School graduate, he teaches Spanish at Oxford Middle School and played for Kelley, who guided the program for a remarkable 25 years from 1995-2019.
One of the best features of golf is it is a game you can play for the rest of your life. While having this course time donated helps the program’s young men improve as players, they are also learning lessons that are applicable away from the game.
“It helps them become better citizens, better players, and better golfers as they get further on,” said Glenn Busam, the General Manager and Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Professional at Copper Hills, the course that typically hosts Gar Willoughby’s Junior Varsity Blue team.
“They’re learning pace of play out here, they’re learning to repair any damage they’ve done with a divot or ball mark, and they come out here, they’re on the range on Wednesdays, and they pick the range after they’re done hitting balls, so they’re learning a little bit about responsibility, as well.”
As for the on-course product, Frias is pleased with how his golfers are developing.
“It was tough to transition from not playing a whole competitive year and then, coming into this year, not knowing what expectations were going to be and level of play,” he said.
“Finishing in the pack most of our tournaments, which, we’ve had some pretty good competition, so I’m pretty happy overall, but there’s always improvement, for sure.”
Closing in on the end of their season, the Wildcats are set to participate in the Oakland County Division 1 Tournament at Fieldstone Golf Club in Auburn Hills on May 19. Asked where he hopes to see his players improve during this final portion of the campaign, Frias pointed to the mental side of the game, which is just as important – if not more so – than their physical abilities.
“Our short-term goals are just kind of preparing them for what to expect when we’re on the course and management,” he said.
“A lot of it comes down not to skill, they’re all great, skilled golfers, they all have the ability to hit great shots, to hit the ball far, but now, how do we control that, how do we look at the course in a backward design, how do we look at the course from the hole to the tee?
“Our goal is to work on golf management, see where we can make little improvements along that line and try to cut a couple of strokes off. The goal would be to finish strong at counties, finish strong at regionals, and even possibly have a couple of individual qualifiers for states, I think there’s some potential and that extra little work and little focus is going to help.”
During their second OAA White Tournament, junior Chase Maier led Oxford with a 76, good enough to tie him for second-place individually, while senior Jake Billis tallied an 84 and Connor Vittetoe, a fellow senior, registered an 87.
These names are possibly familiar to readers of The Oxford Leader as they are all multi-sport student-athletes, Maier earned All-OAA honors in tennis for Ryan Ruzziconi, and Billis and Vittetoe both starred for Derek Billis’ hockey program.
Frias credited these three for the leadership and talent they bring to the team and identified a couple of other names he is proud of, too.
“Jake and Connor, especially, taking on those captain roles, they’re our co-captains, that’s tough to bring leadership and I think they both have great qualities,” he said.
“I think Jake is that quiet leader, more by example, and Connor’s confidence overall really trickles down to the rest of the boys, so I’m proud of what they’re doing.
“Chase’s overall game, he’s just always working on his game, so that’s a great example to all the kids. The hard work it takes to shoot what he’s shooting and the ability he has, they all kind of look up to him.
“We have so many juniors this year, so next year, we’re going to have a bunch of seniors and all of them, individually, have put in work outside of practice. I would say, overall, that group of juniors have really put in effort. Coming in as a freshman or sophomore, you don’t know the expectations, they understand that, so they’re working hard.
“Cameron Lantzy, who’s a sophomore, he’s probably been, so far, the most improved player. He started off shooting in the 50s, now, he’s in the low-40s and has played in a couple of tournaments, so he’s really continuing to improve and then, we have a freshman, Tommy Trbovich.
“He’s a freshman, so he’s fresh to the competition side of golf, he’s played golf, but he’s fresh to the competition side, so he’s learning a lot. I’m proud of his mindset, he’s very focused and works hard. It’s hard to be mature at that level, so he’s got the maturity and the golf game, now, it’s just trying to bring all the other things together to make it an all-around game.”
The focus is on the remainder of the 2021 season, but having this deep, strong group of underclassmen certainly bodes well for Frias’ program in 2022.
Following the Oakland County Tournament, the Wildcats will compete in MHSAA Region No. 2 play at the Saginaw Valley Public Golf Course on June 1. The Division 1 Lower Peninsula State Finals will take place at Forest Akers West on the campus of Michigan State University on June 11-12.
By Teddy Rydquist