By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
ROHNERT PARK — As the NBL boys’ golf season heads down the backstretch with two matches remaining, the struggle for the top spot has evolved into powerhouse Montgomery against upstart Windsor. Cardinal Newman and Maria Carrillo are also in the mix but are now long shots.
On Thursday, the seventh match of the NBL season took place at Foxtail Golf Club’s south course. Montgomery came into the day with an eight-stroke team lead over Windsor for the season, but the Vikings shot a team-best 393 on Thursday while the Cardinals registered a 415, Windsor a 416 and Maria Carrillo a 419.
“It’s going to be a fight to the end,” Montgomery coach Jess Stimack said of the race for the league title. “We are very encouraged and are definitely headed in the right direction.”
Two matches remain to determine the NBL king — the final regular-season date next Friday at Bennett Valley in Santa Rosa and the NBL tournament on April 27 at Rooster Run in Petaluma. The standings after Thursday’s action put first-place Montgomery (2,855) in the lead by 31 strokes, followed by Windsor (2,886), Newman (2,931), Carrillo (2,948), Ukiah (3,080), Casa Grande (3,253), Rancho Cotate (3,360) and Santa Rosa (3,556).
Last year, Carrillo won the NBL with Montgomery in second and Newman third. This season, however, Windsor has been the surprise team of the league and gone the distance with the more traditional NBL golf powers.
“Windsor has been very consistent; that is why they are among the leaders,” Cardinal Newman coach Matt Vukicevich said. “Consistency is Windsor’s strength.”
“Windsor has done a pretty good job of staying near the top,” Casa Grande coach Phil Emswiler added.
Meanwhile, Newman lost its No. 2 golfer, Eric Bolander, after two matches due to a rib injury, and Vukicevich had to call up a JV player to replace him.
“Bolander being out has been huge,” Vukicevich said. “With him in there we had a chance to win the NBL; without him, no.”
Montgomery, which reloaded after 2014 NBL player of the year Nick Rogers graduated, has gotten better as the season has progressed, according to Vikings coach Jess Stimack.
“We started out the year slow but now we are making less mental mistakes and tightening things up,” Stimack said. “We are playing a lot smarter golf now.”
Individually, the top three NBL golfers this season have been seniors — Evan Smith (Windsor, 73 stroke average), Brandon Bone (Cardinal Newman, 73), and Michael Danielski (Maria Carrillo, 74).
“My putting has saved me a lot of strokes this year,” Smith said. “Last year we (Windsor) finished in the bottom half of the league, but this year we expected to be in the top three.”
Bone and Danielski are close friends and grew up playing golf against each other. The two tied for first on Thursday, each shooting a four-above-par 75.
“The competition between the two of us has helped me improve my game,” said Bone, who on Monday won the Ukiah Classic featuring 11 teams, some from out of the area.
“It felt good to play well at Ukiah; I’m putting well right now,” Bone said. “I give credit to coach Vukicevich. As a freshman he took me under his wing.”
While Smith and Bone rely on their putting, Danielski’s specialty is his long drives of 300-310 yards.
“Usually tee shots are the best part of my game, but I’m getting closer with my putting,” Danielski said. “But our team (Maria Carrillo) hasn’t been healthy this year and we haven’t been consistent enough.”
One trend noted by several coaches is the reduced number of high school golfers this season and shallow team depth.
Stimack said last season he had 24 players, but this year only 14.
Said Vukicevich: “The top guys in the NBL are as good as ever, but the depth is not nearly as good up and down the lineups as years past. I’m a little worried because a lot of kids aren’t going out for golf.”