It was a cool, rainy Thursday evening last spring as I pulled into Spring Valley Golf Course to see a golfer some would describe as a big fish in a small pond.
On this day, Tyler Leach was presiding over a Dunn-St. Croix Conference boys golf mini-meet on the course his family owns at the top of Hidden Fox Court west of downtown in the Pierce County community of 1,372 residents. Mini-meets in this conference the last four years were, essentially, Leach against the field, but on this day it was Leach against the course that built him.
It was here that Leach learned to keep his drives between the towering trees that frame virtually every hole. It was here that Leach honed his short game on the practice tee by chipping to little, plastic swimming pools stationed at appropriate intervals for perfecting some of the game's toughest shots. It was here that Marquette coach Steve Bailey found his latest small-town phenom.
Just one year after plucking Hunter Eichhorn out of tiny Carney-Nadeau High School in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Bailey landed Leach not knowing if this big fish from this small pond could do what Eichhorn did for an NCAA Division I program that has been in and out of the top 25 over the last 12 months.
Leach had won the WIAA Division 3 state championship by six strokes as a sophomore in 2016, but then blended into the small-school landscape a year later when he shot a pair of 76s and finished tied for third, two shots back. But Leach went out on top in dramatic fashion, rallying from a first-round 80 and a five-stroke deficit at University Ridge Golf Course in Madison with a closing 70 to edge Fond du Lac Springs' Doyle Kelly by a single shot.
For the first time since Wisconsin.Golf started ranking classes of high school golfers, first-semester collegiate performance has been incorporated into the final update for a graduating class and Leach proved the size of the pond was no factor in him being the biggest fish in it. His impact with the Golden Eagles validated what our rankings had suggested the last three years — that the bar Leach set among WIAA Division 3 golfers was high enough for him to make a smooth transition to college golf and find a home in the Marquette lineup.
His 73.33 average in 15 rounds this fall ranked him fourth on a veteran team that averaged 290.9 per round. His seven sub-par rounds ranked him third behind Eichhorn (10) and senior Oliver Farrell (nine) and his score counted in the Golden Eagles' score in 12 of the first 15 rounds of his college career.
That was more than enough to cement his position atop the Class of 2018 in Wisconsin.Golf's final installment of rankings for that class. And Leach was convincing in being the big fish in a deep pool of talent in that pond, too.
Bay Port's Jed Baranczyk and Madison's Clayton Tribus, who prepped at IMG Academy in Florida, continued to share the No. 2 ranking.
Baranczyk, who failed to qualify for the WIAA Division 1 state tournament after finishing second as a junior, bounced back to win the WPGA Junior Championship and showed promise in his first semester at North Dakota State. He only got one start for the Bison and made it memorable.
He shot 72-74-74 at the Zach Johnson Invitational in West Des Moines, Iowa, as Baranczyk (tied for 10th) and teammate and fellow individual competitor Van Holmgren (tied for seventh) finished ahead of the five golfers in the scoring lineup for the Bison, who finished second to Bradley with a 307-291-288 card.
Neither could crack a veteran lineup that averaged 294.25 in 12 competitive rounds this fall. Fewer than four strokes separated No. 1 from No. 7 in the North Dakota State lineup on average this fall and, with two seniors, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman in the top five, it could be next fall before Baranczyk gets his next chance.
Likewise, Tribus made his mark as an individual in Davidson's season-opener, shooting 69-70 to finish tied for 13th at the Joe Feaganes Marshall Invitational in West Virginia. He was in the lineup the rest of the fall, averaging 76.27 in 11 rounds by the time it was done.
No. 4 Adam Garski of Wauwatosa East/West was one of four golfers in the top 11 who did not go on to play college golf but continued to stand out based on the strength of their showing in their final year of high school golf last spring.
Garski's playoff loss to two-time WIAA Division 1 state champion Piercen Hunt of Hartland Arrowhead thrust a golfer who had been a presence on the junior golf scene since 2009 squarely into the spotlight. While he came up short in his bid to dethrone the first golfer to win Division 1 state titles as a freshman and a sophomore, Garski's 71-71 showing was a career finish to remember.
Manawa's Ryan Schuelke rounded out the top five. After shooting 84-72 to finish tied for sixth at the WIAA Division 3 state tournament, Schuelke gained confidence with top-25 finishes at both the WPGA and WSGA Junior Championships before leaving for his freshman year at UW-Green Bay, where he played his way into the Phoenix lineup, averaging 75.3 in 15 rounds.
Which brings us back to Leach and that cool, cloudy night on his home course.
He shot 2-under 34 and won the nine-hole meet by five strokes. Afterward, Leach spoke with reverence for the opportunity growing up on a golf course afforded him, knowing only a few get the chance to play at the next level.
The Class of 2018 reflected that. More than a dozen golfers in the top 30 put academics first in picking a college, continuing a trend and sending a message that the volume of golf they have played through high school is enough.