They knew they were good.
Actually, even the most casual observer of Collegiate’s 2021 golf team knew that the 11 guys who pursued their championship dream each day were good.
Problem was, considering the formidable competition, good might not be enough.
To win both the Prep League and VISAA tournament titles in one season, an unprecedented achievement in program history, Coach Jeff Dunnington’s squad needed to be not just good, not just great, but excellent.
“At the beginning of the season, George (Montague) and I knew how much talent our team had,” said Hunter Milligan, a five-season varsity starter referencing his long-time teammate and fellow senior co-captain. “There’s a difference between a bunch of good individuals and a team. We did some team-bonding things. Our chemistry was great. We trusted each other and loved playing golf with one another. Trust and confidence in one another led us to have a record-breaking season. It was awesome.”
On May 11 at the par-72 Old Trail Golf Course in Crozet, the Cougars won the league championship, a feat they’d accomplished just three times before: 1976, 2006, and 2007.
Both Milligan and Montague shot 72, freshman Sam Hahn 73, and sophomore Jack Barnes 75 for an 18-hole total of 292, the same as Woodberry Forest. In the case of a tie, the fifth-best score determines the team victor. Junior Ian Quinoza’s 77 was the difference.
“That was as exciting a golf match as I’ve ever been around,” said Dunnington, a 2001 Collegiate graduate who’s headed his alma mater’s golf program for four years. “We were playing well. Woodberry was playing well. We knew we were ahead of everybody else.
“Hunter came in first with an even-par which was his best (18-hole) round of the year. Then George came in with a solid score, but Woodberry was in pretty good shape. Sam, who was playing 5 for us, had a great day and ended up 1-over par which threw us back in contention.”
Barnes, playing in the sixth spot, approached the 18th green one stroke up on his WF counterpart, who placed a shot from 170 yards out just four feet from the cup.
“Rather than freak out,” Dunnington said, “Jack calmly stepped up to the ball and hit it to about eight feet from about the same distance. It was an unbelievable shot after watching what the Woodberry kid did.
“Then the Woodberry kid made his birdie putt to tie it. Jack missed his by an inch. That’s when it went to Ian’s score.”
Exciting as that moment was and as enjoyable as the bus ride home was, the best was yet to come.
Six days later, the Cougars claimed their first VISAA title since 2012. They did so in stunning fashion.
On the par-72 Williamsburg National Golf Course in Yorktown, Dunnington’s crew shot a 4-under 284, a rare feat for high school golfers and a state tournament record (surpassing the 292 set by St. Christopher's in 2017).
Woodberry was second with a stellar 286.
Sophomore Hudson Pace, Collegiate’s sixth finisher at Old Trail (81), shot 69. Barnes followed with 70, Milligan with 72, and Montague with 73.
“I knew our guys could do it,” Dunnington said. “It was just a matter of putting it all together. As a team, we were 7-under through 9. I knew at that point that this could be a very special day. I think we can confidently say that this is the strongest golf team in Collegiate history. We’ve accomplished something that nobody else has accomplished.”
Milligan, Montague, Hahn, Quindoza, Barnes, and Pace earned All-Prep League honors, and Dunnington was voted coach of the year by his league counterparts.
Pace (3rd), Barnes (5th), and Milligan (10th) were all-state by virtue of their top-10 finishes.
Though the ending was memorable, the season was not all highlights.
On April 30, when Woodberry defeated the Cougars 321-304 at the Hermitage Country Club on a course familiar to many Collegiate golfers, they received a blunt reminder – to the tune of 33 over par – that, talented as they were, nothing was guaranteed and some serious soul-searching was in order.
“One hundred percent,” Dunnington said. “Our guys were all jazzed for Woodberry, but we laid an egg. It was a big wake-up call for our guys who were expecting good things to happen. We knew we could be very good. We had to go out and prove it.”
As the magnitude of the Cougars’ double championship was still sinking in, Dunnington reflected upon a mid-February day during tryouts at the Providence Golf Course when 16 candidates arrived with high hopes of earning a varsity position and he came to understand the depth of the talent pool from which he would draw.
“It was cold and a little bit windy, not ideal golf weather,” Dunnington said. “Eleven or 12 guys shot in the 30’s. During tryouts early in the season, that never happens. That’s when I knew this team was going to be special.”
Many of those who ultimately earned roster spots had played during the Covid-abbreviated 2020 season on the JV team that Dunnington felt could have competed on equal footing with the top varsity-level teams in the state.
“We had a lot of guys in the rotation,” said Montague, a poised, ever-steady four-season starter. “It was a lot more competitive than in past years, and that made everyone better.”
Better, yes. But happy considering that competing in prime time is everyone’s goal? No problem there.
“Everybody had his head on straight,” Montague added. “Everyone was good friends with each other. We meshed so well because our seniors were buddies with the freshmen and our freshmen were comfortable around juniors and seniors. It was one big team.”