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Insurance agency has six on B-N Signature Cup team
Clemens and Associates will participate in the Lee Enterprises Signature Cup tourney in Decatur. Elston Mitchell, Frank Niepagen, Jeff Niepagen, Tom Kearfott, Mike Cushing and Todd Mitchell stepped out of the office Tuesday morning for a team photograph. (Pantagraph/LORI ANN COOK) June, 19, 2007)

BLOOMINGTON - Being recognized as the top golfer in Bloomington-Normal doesn't mean you also work at Clemens & Associates, a local insurance agency.

But it's not far from the truth for the last 30 years or so.

The Bloomington-Normal team in the inaugural Lee Enterprises Signature Cup against Decatur this weekend will have a heavy Clemens & Associates flavor, starting with captain Frank Niepagen, who is a partner in the agency along with Rick Percy, Sr.

Niepagen, the most decorated golfer in Bloomington-Normal Golf Association history with 15 city titles, didn't have to look far for many of his selections.

Just down the office hallway, in fact.

Veteran Elston Mitchell is a Clemens & Associates vice-president. Mitchell is still a stalwart on the links at age 63, as was evidenced earlier this spring when he ousted former British Senior Amateur champion Joel Hirsch of Chicago in a 19-hole quarterfinal match in the Chicago District Golf Association Senior Amateur.

Agents Tom Kearfott, Jeff Niepagen (Frank's son), Mike Cushing and Todd Mitchell also come from the talented Clemens & Associates stable.

"Obviously we have some competition around here. We still play a lot of golf together," said Kearfott. "On certain days you can beat certain players. We have one outstanding player in the office. The rest of us are somewhat equal. Todd is heads above us."

The younger Mitchell, who is Elston's son, could have left the office bragging rights to the others if he had stayed in baseball. Todd Mitchell elected to play baseball rather than golf in college and was a shortstop at Illinois State before being drafted by the New York Yankees.

Mitchell played minor league baseball for a couple years before deciding to return home. He went to work at Clemens & Associates and also began an outstanding amateur golf career. He won the 2002 and 2003 Illinois State Amateur championships, was third in 2004 and second last year. Mitchell also has qualified three times for the U.S. Amateur, winning his first-round match last year.

When Mitchell's office buddies get the best of him - whether it's in a tournament or informal round of golf - he hears about it.

"It's always fun to beat him," said Jeff Niepagen. "There are always weekly outings with Todd and Cush. It's rare for anyone to get him for two bucks."

Frank Niepagen was the king of Bloomington-Normal golf from the middle 1960s to the late 1970s. Elston Mitchell, a former fastpitch softball All-American, began working at Clemens & Associates in the middle 1980s when he also became a force in Bloomington-Normal golf.

Kearfott returned to the Twin Cities after trying the professional mini-tours in Florida and became the dominant local player in the late 1980s through most of the 1990s. Jeff Niepagen, Rick Percy Jr. and Cushing came to Clemens & Associates after their playing days were finished at Illinois State, and the young blood really fueled up the office rhetoric.

"You can definitely live off (a victory) for probably for a year, until the next tournament," said Jeff Niepagen. "If you happen to get beat by someone in the office or someone else, there goes your win down the tubes."

The biggest tournament, in terms of popularity in Bloomington-Normal, has been the Two-Man Best Position. There are usually 300 or more teams signed up.

The Two-Man is a match play event that takes about two weeks to play in July, and the volume in the Clemens & Associates office really gets cranked up. With many of the Clemens & Associates golfers teamed up with each other (the Mitchells, Jeff Niepagen-Rick Percy Jr., Kearfott-Cushing), the stakes are high, especially when they play each other.

Frank Niepagen won four Two-Man titles with partner Brad Barker, a local auto dealer, in the 1980s. However, Elston Mitchell is the undisputed Two-Man ruler. He has won the tourney a record 10 times, including three with Kearfott and six with his son.

"Obviously, golf is a big part of our deal here," said Elston Mitchell, who also will serve as Bloomington-Normal's assistant captain. "To be able to get on top of this group is a big deal. It would be really nice to go to Decatur and play well and represent Bloomington-Normal and our office well."

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