As coach of Great Mills's varsity baseball and golf teams, Steven Wolfe approaches tryouts very differently for the two. If one of his young baseball players is struggling to hit a curveball, Wolfe can assign him to the junior varsity squad to work specifically on that skill and prepare for varsity the next season.
He has no such option at golf tryouts. There is no junior varsity team.
With the popularity of the game booming, especially among teenagers, Wolfe and other SMAC coaches are seeing as many as 25 players try out for a team that rarely keeps more than a dozen. Teams can use only six players in each match.
"Coaches are saying, 'What am I supposed to do with 19 kids?'" Wolfe said.
Many of them are saying that Southern Maryland Athletic Conference schools need to start junior varsity golf programs, not only to satisfy the increased interest of younger players, but also to maintain that interest when players cannot get any playing time during the varsity season. While no area public school system has a JV program, they exist at some area private schools, such as DeMatha, Gonzaga, Landon and Georgetown Prep.
"Kids get turned off with golf if they don't play," Wolfe said. "I've lost kids over the years because of that. They think, 'Maybe I could get into one match, but why would I go to all those practices?'"
Jim Hall, who is starting Huntingtown's program, developed Northern into one of the SMAC's strongest teams the past 16 years. But it has been tough to sustain that excellence because he cannot stock players for development.
"It's tough when you're a freshman," Hall said. "When you have a pretty established program, the younger kids who didn't play much summer golf may not come out."
But such players are becoming tough to find. Nearly every ambitious young golfer plays a packed summer schedule, which pushes high school scores lower and raises the criteria for success.
"In '96 or '97, if [a team] shot 170 to 180 [through nine holes], you were winning substantially more than you are now," said Patuxent's Karl Brungot, who started the Panthers' program in 1996. "Now, you've got to be 160 or better to win in the SMAC."
That is a lot of pressure, but Mike Meiser's players are used to that. Meiser has coached La Plata to consecutive SMAC championships and a runner-up place at last year's Maryland 4A/3A tournament. But when he saw his three-time All-Met, Joe Gross Jr., make an 18-foot putt on the first playoff hole to win last year's individual championship, Meiser realized how playing competitive high school golf builds a player's poise.
"You choke not because you're not good, but because you're not used to it," Meiser said. "That's the way Joe could go to the 19th hole at the state tournament, and it's just another hole to him."
There is more to Meiser's program besides Gross and fellow senior Brent Martin, who have been the team's core the past two seasons.
"For our preseason night, I had 20 freshmen come in and say they were shooting 40 to 45" over nine holes, Meiser said. "Now these are stories, but if those are accurate stories, then . . . we have some talent coming in. And if we're getting those players, then so must be everyone else."
Meiser said he would hate to see such promising young talent not get the chance to play and develop. That's why he and several of his SMAC colleagues support a spring junior varsity season.
"We need [spring] JV golf," Meiser said. "We talked about it as coaches. We're a much different sport than others because we can't accommodate all these kids on these courses."
In the spring, freshmen, for example, would have adjusted to a high school curriculum and can prepare for the summer golf season, which in turn would prepare them to make a strong push for the varsity in the fall.
"It would be nice to have a JV spring season where you get them ready for fall," Thomas Stone coach Evan Sine said. "I want them to learn the game and the fundamentals first, however they do it."
But Sine worries about players still learning those fundamentals during full rounds of play when they are not yet complete golfers.
"I don't want them to develop any bad habits," Sine said. "I would rather they learn the game before they go out and play. But if I tell them they're not good enough to be on the varsity team, that kills them and they might give it up."