CHARLESTON -- Keegan Gowin jokingly takes credit for the Charleston High School boy's golf team's success. Gowin's family moved from Mattoon to Charleston when he was in sixth grade. Gowin was already busy golfing and he convinced some of his classmates -- Preston Smith, Robert Rardin and later Ben Lanman -- to join him on the golf course at the Charleston Country Club.
"I don't know if I started it and they all followed, but we've been practicing together since sixth or seventh grade," Gowin said. "It's been fun. We've all stuck pretty close these four years and we know each other pretty well. We bonded since freshman year."
The four have been as thick as thieves on the course ever since. Gowin, Smith and Rardin golfed on the middle school team in seventh grade and Lanman joined the group in eighth grade. All four of them made the varsity team as freshmen. They've helped lead the program to plenty of success since.
Since those four were named to the varsity program, Charleston hasn't lost a dual match. They have won two Class 2A regional titles and two 2A sectional titles. Lanman earned a trip to state as a freshman and Smith made it as a sophomore. Then last year the whole program made it to state.
Charleston wasn't the favorite to win the title. Normal University and St. Viator were. But on the second day, led by Lanman and Rardin, the Trojans made their run. As Normal University and St. Viator started to fall back, the Trojans were moving up the scoreboard and wound up nine strokes ahead of both of those teams. Charleston finished with a 599 to win the state title with one of the lowest scores in IHSA state meet history.
All six golfers -- including juniors Zach Will and Blake Wolfe -- returned this year and the goal this year was simple -- they wanted to win back-to-back state titles. The Trojans are the favorites as they go to the state meet at Weibring Golf in Normal with St. Viator close behind along with a few other schools. Another state title would only add to the long resume the four seniors have compiled over the last four years, which doesn't surprise Trojan head coach Randy Harpster, who thought this group could be special when they were freshmen.
"I knew from day one that we had something special. It came a little sooner than I thought but that's just due to their competitiveness, their work ethic, their intelligence," Harpster said. "They've matured so much. A lot of credit goes to (assistant coach Ron) Rardin, (assistant coach Stan) Adkins and (assistant coach) Dustin Sloat. Especially coach Rardin and Adkins because they've been with me through this all."
The four seniors are confident about winning another state title now, but as freshmen, they weren't sure how good they could be. They knew they were talented but they didn't know how far it would take them.
"I didn't really know what to expect our freshman year. We were just little freshmen playing varsity so I didn't know what to expect," Gowin said. "I knew we had something special but I didn't know we could win a state championship like we did."
Robert Rardin did admit he thought the team had the potential going into his freshman season.
"We thought we had one in us, at least I thought that, but not two. But I knew we were good enough to win one," Rardin said. "We've been playing golf for years together and we all started around the same time. We are pretty tight. We are just so deep. We all can play. It's a bunch of golfers playing together and we all know how to do it. We've done it before."
The four did have two upperclassmen to lean on at the time with senior Grayson Gough and junior Ridge Boyer. Smith said those two helped keep them in check which helped them grow as golfers. It's a lesson they still use today even after all of their success.
"I feel like they more or less didn't let us get too cocky with ourselves," Smith said. "They were older and they helped us keep our heads on. We need to just go play and not act like we keep winning. Just don't get too cocky and go out and have some fun."
That's helped build the team culture because each one of the four seniors could claim to be the No. 1 golfer for the team. Each one has had his No. 1 moments. But the team doesn't see it that way. They see themselves as equals, which is what makes the team so good, Smith said.
"We've all had our ups and downs and if we can all have our ups, I think we will all be No. 1 golfers honestly," Smith said. "It feels good to have a team with how much potential we have but we still have to go out and play and we have to do it as a team. We can't do it just individually."
If a No. 1 golfer has to be picked, based on scoring averages, it's Lanman, who has a bit of a different story than the other three. Lanman didn't start golfing competitively until eighth grade. The other three already had one year under their belts, along with a few tournaments. Lanman went out for football in seventh grade even though he was hesitant to go out. His father wanted him to give football a try and he did. But Lanman suffered an arm injury and didn't go out for football his eighth-grade year. He joined the golf team.
Lanman was the final piece in the puzzle for that senior group.
"I told my parents I was going to play golf because I came out here a little bit. We all made it to state that year in eighth grade and we all did well," Lanman said. "I knew then that we had four or five guys that could play."
Even though Lanman did get off to a later start than his friends, his game developed quickly. After only golfing competitively in eighth grade, he made the IHSA state meet as a freshman. He credits his quick development to his competitive nature.
"It's just something I always liked to do. I fell in love with the game when I first started playing it and I just worked hard to be in this position," Lanman said. "We work at it pretty hard. I've never seen anyone work harder than we have. We are out here every day working on everything we need to for any tournament we are at. Everyone is always prepared."
While the four seniors have been the focal point of the team this year and even last year, the two juniors of Will and Wolfe have complemented the four well. Wolfe has been on the team as a freshman.
"The thing about Blake that impresses me the most is he can have a bad nine holes and turn it around quickly. He's got tremendous resiliency," Harpster said. "He never gives up and he always competes and he has a tremendous amount of talent and is another hard worker."
Will turned a corner this season and it's been evident at the 2A regional and sectional. He shot a 75 and finished on the All-Region team. Then he shot a 76 at the sectional. He's been right there with the four seniors.
"The improvement that Zach has made this year -- he's gone from a mid-80s golfer to now a mid-70s golfer," Harpster said. "His last few rounds have been great. He's not backing down from anyone."
All six golfers know what it takes to win a state title, too, and are primed to do it again. Still, Harpster thinks the team has a bit of room for improvement. That's what he thought last year and the team shot a 599 at state. He thinks the team can equal that or maybe got a little lower this weekend because he knows the team has that talent.
But the team also knows they just have to go out and relax and just focus on their game at Weibring today (Friday) and Saturday.
"We know we do have the lowest sectional score but we are trying not to get too big of a head," Rardin said. "We just have to do what we need to do and do it again."