The Paris High School golf team makes the final turn of its historic season, qualifying for the state golf tournament for the first time in 30 years. Along with the Wildcat golfers, North Lamar junior Jackson Nottingham reached the state competition as an individual competitor for the second year in a row. Golf in Lamar County this year has been a magical time for all parties involved.

“This has been an unbelievable year, and it’s one that I’ve looked forward to for a while,” Paris head golf coach Randall Lewis said. “I thought I’d have most of these kids a long time ago, and to see it all come to fruition is exciting. We’ve had expectations this year of going to state, and I felt like anything less than that would be a disappointment. 

“We thought we needed to shoot 325 and 325 to get there; we were a little short of that, so it was really tense. All of the sudden, they popped the scores up on the board and we realized we were going to state, it was really emotional. 

“It’s been since 1988 that a Paris High team has been there. I have a kid on the team whose dad played on the last state title team — that’s how long it’s been. It was pretty special.”

Getting to state wasn’t easy

For the Wildcats, punching their ticket to state did not come without some drama. The Paris golf team had to come back from three strokes down from the third-place spot, and they eventually flipped Canton by one stroke to qualify for state.

“We had to definitely bring it with the next day’s scores — we knew we had to shoot our best,” Wildcat golfer Tyler Harvey said. “We talked about what scores we needed to get and we set goals in order to make it to state.”

Paris posted a team score of 332 in the first day, sitting in fourth, while Canton posted a team score of 329. The pressure was on in the second day of regionals, but the ’Cats were confident they could rise to the occasion.

“It was pretty nerve wracking because we knew we had to put up a pretty good number the second day if we wanted to go to state,” Paris freshman golfer Mason Napier said. “Hearing the scores throughout the day, we knew what we needed to do. We just did as good as we could possibly do and, if we got it, we got it, and it ended up working out.”

Paris pulled off the thrilling come-from-behind finish, and it instantly became an unforgettable moment.

“It was extremely emotional for me,” Lewis said. “I’ve been four times with individuals, but I had never thought I would have a full team at state. To see it happen and flip last minute — everyone was watching and rooting for us — and when that last score was posted and we flipped Canton for a shot, it brought back a lot of good memories. It made me think about my old high school coach J.T., and he told me one time that he wanted me to experience what he experienced. He told me that everyone knew who they were even in junkie old cars. To see everyone at that scoring table pulling for us to flip Canton — it was a defining moment.”

And it was a moment to celebrate more than normal due to the dramatic fashion in which Paris punched its ticket.

“It made it way sweeter,” Napier said of the comeback. “We knew coming in what we needed to do, we accomplished it and it made the celebration afterwards even more fun for all of us.”

Taking it all in

For one golfer in particular, this moment is very special. Paris senior Blaine Hill made it to state in the final year as a Paris High School student. He not only wants to make the most of his opportunity with his team, but he also wants to set the tone as the senior leader.

“It means a lot to me,” Hill said. “I’ve always wanted to go to state, and I got to do it with a group that means a lot to me. Hopefully, I can set a good example for them going forward and the key qualities to do it again.”

Hill wants to help lay the foundation for years to come, starting with the upcoming state meet. The senior golfer talks the talk, but knows he and his team must walk the walk as well.

“We’ve worked hard, but there’s obviously more room for us to get better going into state,” Hill said.

A team with an unbreakable bond

To reach the highest level of competition high school golf offers, teams, players, coaches and all parties involved must be unified, something the Wildcats have working in their favor.

“I think we all get along pretty well,” Harvey said. “We all have good friendships with each other, and we’re there for each other when one of us needs help with anything.”

Qualifying for the state golf tournament only helped the team’s bond flourish through the adversity.

“I’ve had a close bond with my teammates and we’ve really tried to keep building upon it throughout the season,” Wildcat golfer Tate Lewis said. “Once we made it to state — we had to trust each other a lot at regionals in the second day. We all knew we had a job to do that second day, and we were able to go out there and accomplish it, which brought us all closer together. It made us all believe in each other and that we all had each others’ backs.”

That was especially true the second day of regionals, but the teammates also are there for each other when they’re off the course. Tate Lewis, who has gone through five open heart surgeries over time, doesn’t allow his struggles to define him, and his teammates have only been supportive through it all. It would be easy for any team to use a situation like this to attempt to gain sympathy, but Tate and his golfers have a common goal in mind — strive for excellence without any limitations or any drop in focus.

“The guys on the golf team have always known I’ve had issues with my heart, but they’ve never looked at it like anything different, and neither do I,” Tate Lewis said. “I look past it and worry about my golf game. Yeah, I’ve had to go to the hospital a few times, but mainly I just focus on my golf game. If I worry about that, it’s less time for me to focus on my golf game — I don’t let it slow me down. I just try to put any distractions and anything else aside so I can focus on my golf game.”

Paris’ golf team is a diverse and talented group, and each individual has a unique path in how they got to the team. In addition to that, having a crosstown competitor, but also a friendly rival in Nottingham boosts the overall camaraderie and excitement.

“Each one of these kids has a story, and a unique story in how they ended up at Paris,” Lewis said. “It’s laughable because they’re kind of a rag-tag, put-together group of kids, but they’re scrappy, they get along and they really pull for each other, including Jackson (Nottingham).”

NL’s Nottingham hopes to surpass big expectations

Nottingham knew the stakes were high when he made it back to regionals. After making it to state last year as a sophomore, the pressure was on to do the same thing in his junior year. When Nottingham shot a two-day score of 151, relief and joy were front and center.

“After making it last year, I feel like I had that same expectation this year,” Nottingham said. “I felt like everyone expected that out of me, and I expected it out of myself as well. When I made it, I just felt good that I accomplished my goal and that I made everyone else around me who was rooting for me happy, too.”

He may not fully realize it, but the feat Nottingham pulled off is impressive to his coach and great for North Lamar ISD. Along with reaching state, North Lamar head golf coach Jamie Allen raved about his star junior’s talent and mentality, which he believes are catalysts in the back-to-back state appearances.

“To say Jackson is a talented golfer would be an understatement,” Allen said. “I don’t think people realize how difficult qualifying to the 4A State Tournament back-to-back years actually is. If you have one bad day, which is very common in golf, your chance of making it is gone. He is a great golfer, but I love Jackson’s demeanor and mindset on the course. He is one of those athletes that represents North Lamar in all the ways our athletic program preaches — in the classroom, as well as on and off the course. Jackson carries himself so well, even when things aren’t going the way he wants, which is the right mindset for a golfer to have.”

Many golfers have talent, but some may not work as hard as others. Laziness is not a word to describe Nottingham as his diligence to the game and time he dedicates to it have been instrumental in his success.

“I put a lot of time and work into my game,” Nottingham said. “I feel like it helps me now because I’ve just learned how to play over the years, and I can still manage to pull out a good score even when my game isn’t at its best.”

The drive he competes with and the aspirations he has were both motivating factors as well.

“Jackson wasn’t content or satisfied with just making it to the state tournament last year,” Allen said. “He has been putting in a lot of time at the range and on the course with the intent of showing he truly belongs and can compete at the state level.”

Sharing the course with friendly rivals

Being the lone Panther amidst a host of rivals Wildcats may not seem ideal on paper, but both Nottingham and the Paris golf team are pulling for each other. Getting the opportunity to compete alongside his Wildcats peers is something Nottingham is eagerly looking forward to.

“I think it’s really exciting that I’m getting to go with this group of guys,” Nottingham said. “I’ve grown up playing with all of them and we talked for a long time about how this would be the year for all of us to go to state. When it all worked out, it just felt like everything really fell into place.”

On the flip side, Paris is going into the competition aiming for success. However, if the ball doesn’t roll their way, the team hopes to see Nottingham succeed.

“If we can’t win, I want Jackson to win,” Randall Lewis said. “That’s our motto — we pull for our neighbors. It’s really fun to see this group make it, and I’m really excited to get down there.”

The RRV golfers will compete in the state tournament Monday and Tuesday at Plum Creek in Kyle.

Geoff Heppes is sports editor for The Paris News. He can be reached at 903-785-6967 or at geoff.heppes@theparisnews.com.

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