BLOOMINGTON — Ethan Huynh is a state golf tournament veteran. The University High School senior tees off in his fourth state tourney on Friday, the first Pioneer golfer to do so in six years.
Yet something is different this time for Huynh and his teammates. The Pioneers won't be participating in the Class 2A State at Weibring Golf Club at Illinois State, but instead have traveled across the Twin Cities to the Class 3A State at The Den at Fox Creek Golf Course.
"The feeling is pretty much the same," said Huynh before Thursday's practice round. "Our team definitely has the capability of putting up some good numbers. Obviously the competition is a lot bigger and harder, but we'll definitely put up a good fight."
U High was sent to Class 3A because of the Illinois High School Association's success adjustment factor. Non-boundaried schools that have won two trophies in the same class over the past four years, and at least one trophy in the past two years, are moved up.
The Pioneers won the Class 2A title in 2016 and were third last year.
Heart of Illinois Conference teams Tri-Valley and Tremont will represent the area in the Class 1A State Tournament at Prairie Vista Golf Course. It will be Tri-Valley's first state appearance since 2004, while Tremont has never advanced before.
No area teams qualified for the Class 2A State at Weibring Golf Club. However, Bloomington's TJ Barger and Pontiac's Griffin Nyi were sectional medalists.
Much of the talk at the courses Thursday centered on the IHSA's decision to institute a cut after Friday's opening round for the first time. The low eight teams (and ties), along with the low 24 golfers (and ties) not on advancing teams, will compete in Saturday's final round.
Class 3A: Despite graduating four golfers last year, U High has adjusted well to its move up by winning the Bradley-Bourbonnais Regional and taking second in the Edwardsville Sectional.
Huynh and Brevin Knight, a junior, were in the Pioneers' lineup last year and have led the team most of the season. They are joined by seniors Cody Surma and Parker Penn, and sophomores Reece Tennison and Jackson Yoder.
"It feels like there's a lot better competition because we're now in 3A," said Knight. "The teams are going to be a lot deeper than they were in 2A. At The Den, it gets a lot more windy than Weibring. That will be tough."
However, U High coach Darrin York said his team's outlook hasn't changed.
"The goal still needs to be to come out and win the golf tournament," he said. "That's what we talked about all year whether it's the regional tournament, Intercity, conference, whatever. The idea is to go to a tournament regardless what the field looks like, play hard for 18 holes and try to win the tournament."
U High is by far the smallest school in the field. The Pioneers' enrollment of 612 students pales to that of the largest school, Lincolnshire Stevenson (4,185). Oak Park Fenwick is the next smallest school at 1,191.
U High has been bumped up once before. It happened in 2005 under the old two-class system — and the Pioneers promptly won the Class 2A title by a stroke over New Trier.
"I hope we can do that this year," said Knight.
That was part of U High's state record of seven straight titles from 2003-09. Hinsdale Central will be looking to tie that mark this weekend. The Red Devils return five golfers from last year's squad which edged Lake Forest by two strokes.
Last year's medalist, Stevenson senior Jackson Bussell, returns.
Class 1A: Tri-Valley just missed qualifying for state last year after tying for fourth in sectional. The Vikings took second in the Danville Schlarman Sectional on Monday to end a 14-year state drought.
"I honestly think the pressure is off of us a little bit," said Tri-Valley coach Bryan Corn. "Ever since last year's sectional, the goal has been to get to the state tournament as a team and we've accomplished that goal."
Prairie Vista is almost like a home course for the Vikings, which should be a benefit. Sophomore Matthew Barker has been Tri-Valley's leader and fired 79 at Danville Country Club on Monday.
The rest of the Vikings' lineup includes seniors Camdyn Zook and Mike Guimond, juniors Ryan Steiner and Drew Rudsinski and sophomore Josh Stewart.
"I told them if they play their best golf, and I'm not sure I've seen their best golf, there's a very good chance we could be taking some kind of trophy home whether it's third place, runner-up or first place," said Corn.
Tremont took third by a stroke in the Aledo Sectional to secure its first state berth in Troy Schmidt's 19th season as coach.
"We had no seniors on the team last year and advanced to sectional," said Schmidt. "I thought we had the pieces to make it happen."
Senior Tim Rice has led a veteran Turks squad that includes four other seniors — Ben Garmon, Joel Wockley, Alec Gilmer and Torrin Lawson — along with junior Nolen Leiva.
Area individual qualifiers include Fieldcrest senior Nick Mariotti and Woodland senior Tyler Jenkins, who was sectional medalist at Danville.
Riverdale took last year's title and has four golfers returning.
Class 2A: Barger was an individual state qualifier as a freshman last year when he shot 80 the first day before eventually tying for 88th at 172.
"I want to place top 10, of course, but more importantly I just want to win," said Barger of his goal. "I'm really familiar with the course. It's a little longer, and I hit it long enough where I can put myself in good positions."
Nyi, a senior, captured the Lemont Sectional title at Broken Arrow Golf Club in Lemont by shooting 73 and winning a two-hole playoff. Also advancing out of that sectional was Prairie Central senior Josh Kilcullen.
Charleston fired 292 in last year's final round to overtake St. Viator and U High for its first title. The Trojans return their entire lineup, including seniors Robert Rardin and Ben Lanman, who tied for sixth and 10th, respectively.