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Cape Central senior Corey Connell ready for challenge of state golf tourney
Corey Connell, like the rest of the Central seniors, will get the chance to sleep in today.
He has finished his last homework assignment, taken his last final and heard his last bell.
Thursday officially was his last day of high school. All that remains is the graduation ceremony Sunday.
But don't look for Connell to receive his diploma with the rest of his classmates.
He will be absent from that roll call because one test remains.
His final exam will be the two-day Class 4 tournament, which will be administered Monday and Tuesday at the Silo Ridge Golf Club in Bolivar, Mo.
But Connell is not shedding any tears about missing graduation.
"I'd probably be a lot more hurt if I wasn't going to state than if I was missing graduation," Connell said.
But it's not like Connell hasn't had his name called to be recognized before crowds recently. It's just that he's done it in cap and shorts instead of cap and gown.
His senior season started slowly, but he since has tied a school record with a 4-under-par 31 and won individual titles in both the district and conference tournaments.
"He's turned it on when it really counted," Central coach Dick Wadlington said. "This last month of golf has been really special for him."
Connell, the son of longtime area club professional Jack Connell, will be making his third consecutive appearance at the state tournament. He tied for 27th in his junior trip to state and placed 66th as a sophomore.
"I'm hoping to make some improvements and play the best I can," Connell said. "You got to go into every tournament with the mindset of wanting to win. You can't go in hoping just to get in the top 15. I'm definitely going to try to win, but if it doesn't happen, there's always the next tournament."
That confident but accepting mindset has been a work in progress throughout his high school career.
He was among the top five golfers on a strong Central team as a freshman, qualified for the state tournament as a sophomore and won the Notre Dame Invitational with a 1-over-par 73 at Bent Creek against the best high school golfers in Southeast Missouri last season.
They all were positive results, but often the pursuit of those outcomes got him into trouble. He recalls the pressure he applied to himself to shoot scores, which he said was part of his downfall his freshman year when he fell short of qualifying for the state meet.
"I went into district shaking and thinking I had to make it all four years and put the score in my mind that I thought I had to shoot," said Connell, who shot an 87 that first year at Aberdeen Golf Club. "Once I got over that [number], I beat myself up. I definitely learned from it. And I learned from my sophomore year, junior year and senior year. It was a learning process, and I think it needed to happen because it made me come down to reality and realize [I needed to] play every shot one at a time because it's about all you can do."
That lesson carried into this season, where it assumed a different look. He was a senior and faced the pressure of an uncertain future after high school.
"I think that was my main problem," Connell said. "I went out there knowing I didn't have a golf scholarship, so I had to play my best and had to let coaches know early that I could play. So it was really frustrating those first three tournaments when I was hoping to shoot some good scores, and I didn't."
He shot par in his first two nine-hole rounds at Cape Girardeau Country Club, but he then began to struggle. He shot a 42 in a dual meet at Hidden Trails Country Club in Dexter, Mo., and tied for 11th at the Poplar Bluff Invitational with a 78. He was a combined 6-over par in his next two meets at Cape Girardeau Country Club where his main nemesis was putting.
His putting woes hit rock bottom with 37 putts April 16 at the Jackson Invitational. He finished with a round of 80 at Kimbeland Country Club.
"I wasn't all there," Connell said. "I was beating myself up by the time I got to the ninth hole. Once I got to the back side, I was so upset it was hard to shoot a good score. I was still down about three-putting nine from about 15 feet, and I couldn't focus on my drive on 10. The difference between now and then is I've learned to close the door and forget about the past."
The 80 still ranked second among the Tigers, but it was nine strokes behind sophomore teammate Travis Simmons, who was medalist with a 71.
Jack Connell, who has been Corey's swing coach since he started in the game, knew his son was in need of some changes. He got Corey to practice with a Ping Wolverine putter immediately after the round at Kimbeland and again the next day. He also addressed his son's focus.
"I said, 'Well, we've got to try something," Jack Connell said. "'A little change of what you're looking at. I'm not saying it's all your putter, but we've got to change your attitude.'"
Corey tried the new putter in a three-team meet two days after the Jackson Invitational, and the results were dramatic. He made five birdies in nine holes in a round of 31 over the front nine at Cape Girardeau Country Club.
"He's found a new sense of confidence in his putting, and it seems like he's just took off from there," Wadlington said.
An adjustment in attitude became evident in a dual meet a day later when Connell ballooned to a 40 over the same nine holes. Connell maintained a steady demeanor despite the score.
"He still putted pretty good but hit it all over the lot," Jack Connell said. "And before he would have been upset. He would have been, 'How can I shoot 31, and how can I shoot 40? I told him after the round, because of his attitude, I was more proud of his 40 than I was of his 31."
The lesson of attitude became cemented on the way to Eureka, Mo., for the next meet -- the Class 4 District 1 tournament at Aberdeen. Corey was riding with his parents and Simmons when his father began to talk about the ability to focus on shots.
"He told us, 'Today is the day you close the door on every shot you hit after you hit it,'" Corey said.
His father used the visualization that each shot, good or bad, had to be left in a room. The door needed to be closed on a shot before the next was taken.
"You have to forget about the past and keep going," Corey said. "I think that's been the biggest help for me."
Doors definitely were in need of slamming at Aberdeen.
Connell bogeyed the first two holes but came back with birdies on the final four holes of the front nine. Bogeys followed on the first three holes of the back nine, but an eagle putt dropped on No. 14.
The wild ride ended in an even-par 72 and medalist honor for Corey.
"It was a very up and down day," Corey said. "My freshman year, and probably my sophomore year, I probably would have beaten myself up after I'd made those three bogeys, or even if I was 2- or 3-over after the first couple of holes. I would have been a lot more upset than I was this year when I realized there were more birdie holes out there. I just had to execute on the ones that were out there, and I did a pretty good job with that."
And in the bigger realm Corey began to focus on enjoying his senior season and not the rewards or consequences.
"I kind of let that go and realized that if I was going to get a golf scholarship, it's going to come," Corey said. "If I'm supposed to play in college, it's going to happen. That's when I started to play a little better and took a lot of pressure off myself."
He later advanced to the state meet with a 6-over-par 78 on a difficult day for scoring at Crown Pointe in Farmington, Mo.
The enjoyment hit an all-time high on the final day of April at the SEMO Conference tournament at Dalhousie Golf Club, the course where Jack Connell has been the director of golf for the past 12 years and where Corey has played much of his golf growing up.
Corey always had struggled on the layout during high school competition despite his familiarity and fondness for the course acclaimed both statewide and nationally. Corey entered his final high school round at Dalhousie with his best prep score in the low 80s.
Corey found himself in a dual for first place with Poplar Bluff senior standout Carr Vernon on the back nine.
Cathy Connell, Corey's mother, left work early and arrived at the course in time to see her son sink birdie putts on the final two holes for a winning 1-under-par 71. And not only did Corey earn medalist, but Central surprisingly claimed the conference championship.
The storybook feel was accentuated when Jack Connell gave out the hardware at the awards ceremony.
The elder Connell, with glassy eyes and big smile, proudly blared the name of "SEMO Conference medalist Corey Connell."
"He's called out a lot of great players' names to win that tournament through the years," Corey said. "I was fortunate enough to win it. That was a big deal for me. It definitely was a huge confidence booster and got me a lot more looks from colleges because of it."
Jack Connell still gets emotional talking about the outcome.
"It was a good day in the Connell family," said Jack Connell, who had his photo taken afterward with his wife and plaque-bearing son.
It looked a lot like graduation day.