The First Baptist Academy boys and girls golf teams both enjoyed milestone seasons this fall. GREGG HARDY/CSI
Take a couple of father-daughter-son trios. Add a pair of emerging eighth-grade standouts. And lastly, throw in plenty of hard work.
What does it all add up to?
Answer: A First Baptist Academy boys and girls golf program that’s on the rise.
It started three years ago when Alexa Oates, an FBA freshman at the time, decided to become her school’s lone female golfer. Needing a coach, her father, Marc, was happy to step into the role.
“(For) two years, it was just her and I running around playing in tournaments. We had fun,” said Marc Oates Sr., who, in 2018, also became coach of the FBA boys program (which included his son Marc Jr.,) after its coach stepped down.
What’s transpired these last two seasons for First Baptist Academy’s boys and girls golf teams has been fairly remarkable. Scoring averages are dropping precipitously, and hardware — in the form of trophies and medals — is accumulating just as quickly.
The Lions have become a battle-tested bunch. Coach Oates saw to that by putting together a schedule consisting mainly of either 18- or 36-hole (two-day) events, as opposed to the nine-hole matches that fill other teams’ regular-season slates.
While it was the Oates family that planted the seeds for golf to grow at First Baptist Academy, another family, the Lyes, came along to help the program flourish.
Last year, former PGA Tour pro Mark Lye (whose son, Lucas, and daughter, Eva, have become integral members of FBA golf) volunteered his services to help coach the Lions. Swing tips, club fittings, practice drills, clinics, the Rules of Golf, attitude, mental game … those are all in Mark Lye’s bailiwick.
“I think that kind of puts our program on the map,” Marc Oates Sr. said of having Lye associated with First Baptist golf.
Playing as an individual, Alexa Oates did a fine job representing First Baptist, nearly winning a district title in her first season. And while the time spent traveling to tournaments with her father was special, Alexa wanted more for her junior and senior seasons.
She wanted teammates.
“It was kind of lonely being by myself playing as an individual in all these tournaments,” said Oates, who wasn’t able to work on her golf game much in-season due to her commitment playing for the First Baptist volleyball team. “And then once Ellie and Eva and Kate all came along, I was so excited because I wasn’t the only one.”
Oates was referring to Ellie Hendricks, Eva Lye and Kate Madden — an eighth-grader and two sixth-graders, respectively. The three of them joined Oates last season to form First Baptist’s original girls squad.
”We really knew that we had potential, but we had to dig deep and try to (reach it),” Alexa Oates recalled of that inaugural season.
And then …
“Once we added Pearl this year, we dominated.”
Pearl Jenkins, an eighth-grader who came to First Baptist via Oakridge Middle School, was the spark that the FBA girls needed.
“Getting Pearl this year was huge for us,” Coach Oates said.
Jenkins elevated the Lions to instant contender status. They won their flight at the Crutchfield/Hawkins Invitational on Sept. 23 and finished second in the inaugural Private 8 Conference championships on Oct 2.
“It was very exciting to join the team, and I had a great feeling about (the season),” Jenkins said.
It all came together for the FBA girls on Oct. 16 at Valencia Golf & Country Club, site of the Class 1A-District 12 championship. Admittedly “very nervous” before her round, Jenkins settled down to fire a 78 (and finish runner-up in the individual competition) as the Lions won their first district title by a whopping 28 shots over Community School of Naples. Alexa Oates finished right behind Jenkins with an 82, and Lye and Hendricks carded an 86 and 88, respectively, as FBA posted its best team score of the season (334).
“I was so happy,” Jenkins said. “I knew I was playing well, like better than most days. And then, all of a sudden, I looked at my score and it was the best (feeling).”
“We definitely peaked (at districts),” said Hendricks, who’s just a freshman but will replace Alexa Oates as FBA’s oldest player next season. “Our first tournament was OK, and then we gradually got better and better.”
Five days after their district breakthrough, the Lions’ season ended at Meadows Country Club in Sarasota, where they shot a 360 to finish fourth at regionals. Up until last year (before the Florida High School Athletic Association changed its qualifying format), that score would’ve been good enough for a trip to the state championships.
“We made history this year — first district title in school history,” Alexa Oates said. “It’s pretty amazing because I kind of started this whole thing.”
(Side note: On the very next day after the golf district championship, Alexa Oates helped the FBA volleyball team win its second straight district crown — the only two in program history. “Two districts in two days,” Oates said proudly.)
Although he had to start from scratch with the girls squad, it may have been an even bigger lift for Marc Oates Sr. take over as coach of the FBA boys program.
Just how rough around the edges were the Lions? Well, at last year’s South Florida PGA High School championships, other coaches jokingly referred to them as “The Bad News Bears.” (“And we might have come in last place,” Coach Oates said.)
With no team success to speak of before his arrival (and well-established district foes like Community School of Naples and St. John Neumann way ahead of his team), Coach Oates developed a meticulous course of action. First, he looked at certain successful high school teams and analyzed everything he could about them: procedures, policies, strategies, practices, schedules. Then he put together a manual — about 30 pages long — based on his observations.
The result: Within two seasons, the Lions earned their first-ever trip to regionals. (The boys didn’t fare nearly as well as FBA’s girls at Meadows Country Club, finishing last in the 12-team field with a score of 397. That old saying, “You’ve got to crawl before you can walk,” may be particularly fitting for this FBA boys squad, which is comprised of two sophomores, two freshmen and an eighth-grader.)
“Having all these guys go together (to regionals) this year is a big achievement, and it’s only through their offseason hard work really,” said Coach Oates, who saw three of his golfers — Marc Oates Jr., Ryan Kriz and Chris Forsythe — play individually at regionals last year.
The Lions played their best golf this season when they won the Trinity Catholic Invitational with a team score of 325. An eighth-grader and the team’s youngest player, Forsythe led the way with a 75, followed by Kriz (79), Oates Jr. (82) and Lye (89).
Forsythe, who is home-schooled, said he spends much of his spare time — five to seven hours a day — working on his game. (This begs the question: How good is he going to be in four years?)
Going up against some of the stronger local programs they hope to eventually surpass, FBA’s boys posted a pair of third-place finishes at the Private 8 Conference championship and the Class 1A-District 12 championship.
“We’ve definitely grown, and we’re going to get a lot better,” said Marc Oates Jr., FBA’s former No. 1 golfer who, along with fellow sophomore Andre Santos are the Lions’ oldest players. “We were at the bottom a couple years back, and now we’re there with all these other teams. Now we’re just going to get better.”
Kriz, who’s been playing since sixth grade and regularly posted scores in the mid-80s last year, shot a team-best 77 at the Private 8 championship.
“Having a couple kids that can fire rounds in the 70s is huge for us,” Coach Oates said. “… We’ve never had FBA boys golfers put rounds in the 70s on the tournament board before. … It’s a big game-changer for our team.”
Is it fair to say this was the year FBA boys golf arrived?
“Yeah, we like to think so,” Coach Oates said. “As young as we are, we’re only going to get better. And when the other teams are losing seniors and juniors, our guys are going to have four or five years of experience playing in these tournaments and in the district finals and regionals.”
Santos could be a player to watch next year. Coach Oates called him a good basketball player who’s been able to translate his athleticism onto the golf course.
“His improvement level from last year to this year has been tremendous,” said Coach Oates, who added that Santos “had one foot in and one foot out” of golf last year but now has “two feet in.”
Santos’ goal this season was to shoot in the high 90s and low 100s. He accomplished that with a 106 at districts and 99 at the Crutchfield/Hawkins Invitational — a huge leap forward from the 142 he carded last year. The Lions’ trip to regionals seemed to bolster Santos’ outlook.
“We wanted to go to regionals; we had the power to go to regionals, and we did,” he said.
Here are some bonus quotes from the interview with First Baptist Academy golfers and their coach:
Chris Forsythe, on making the leap from FBA’s No. 4 or 5 boys golfer to unquestioned No. 1: “I’ve got to give a lot of credit to my team because they help me each year get better and better. I don’t think I could’ve done it without my team, my coach and my hard work.”
Coach Oates, on Chris Forsythe becoming FBA’s top boys golfer: “He’s earned the No. 1 spot, and his scores certainly prove that.”
Eva Lye, on Alexa Oates’ leadership role: “We look up to her a lot. She’s kind of like the mother bear out there on the golf course. If she sees something wrong with our game or something that we can improve, she always steps up to help us, and we look up to her a lot for that.”
Kate Madden, also on Alexa Oates’ leadership: “She encourages me to do better in my game. If I’m having a bad day, she’ll come up to me and start encouraging me to do better.”
Coach Oates, on seventh-grader Eva Lye scoring mid- to low-80s rounds while competing against girls much older than her: “The experience she’s getting at this age … when she’s a junior and senior, she’s going to be playing against girls that don’t have the experience she has.”
Eva Lye, on whether she thinks about where her game will be in a few years: “I try to stay focused on how I’m doing right now and focus on my game, but (sometimes), I think of how I’m going to be doing next year because last year I was shooting in the 100s, and this year I’m shooting in the 80s and 90s. If I can improve that much each year … I’m going to be really good when I’m a junior and senior.”
Coach Oates, on Kate Madden’s work ethic as FBA’s No. 5 girls golfer: “As far as working hard offseason and sticking with it, and the grindability and the improvement level, Kate is on a different level. She has the best demeanor and attitude. She just plays. She’s a grinder, and she gets it done. She’s getting better and better every offseason.”
Seventh-grader Kate Madden, on whether she thinks about where her game will be in a few years: “I think about next year (and) how I’m going to do with my game and how I’m going to practice in the offseason.”
Coach Oates, on what Ellie Hendricks and Eva Lye provide to the girls lineup: “Not too many girls teams are deep in the third and fourth spot. They might have one or two, but we think we’re pretty deep in the three and four spots as well.”
Lucas Lye, on his attitude toward competitive golf after becoming a top-four player for the FBA boys: “Playing with people my age really motivated me. It was like, ‘Wow, this is a great game.’ I could make good friends in this game; I could make bad friends in this game. But mostly, along the way, I’m going to make good friends, and that’s what really motivated me through the offseason.”
Coach Oates, on Lucas Lye’s attitude toward competitive golf: “I don’t think he’s ever really had the fever for golf until last year, and then he started (working hard) in the offseason, and he’s really passionate about the game.”
Ellie Hendricks, on the team’s outlook to start the season: “I knew our team was going to be really good because we all love each other, and it’s so fun.”
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