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Charleroi golfer shoots for success

| Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 3:32 p.m.
Gunnar Riley was the No. 1 player on the Charleroi Area High School boys golf team all four years of his scholastic career.
Charleroi Area High School's Gunnar Riley wants to become a licensed PGA professional and hopes to work for a major golf equipment manufacturer someday.

In his 25 seasons as golf coach at Charleroi Area High School, Joe Wiehl has seen three of his players hold the Cougars' No. 1 position for four consecutive years.

Depending on the school, team and circumstances, it's generally not that easy for one player to be his team's top player four years running, Wiehl explained.

“Some teams may not have that many players, so a golfer could be his team's best for four seasons and not be an outstanding player. But that's not the case with Charleroi. We've been fortunate to have 10-15 players on the team every year, so our best golfer would have to beat everyone each year, and it's obviously not that easy.”

However, this year's top player is one of those few to hold the top post for four years and will focus on a golfing program in college next year, even though his name may be more fitting of his springtime sport of choice, baseball.

After receiving a set of junior golf clubs when he was 5 years old, Gunnar Thomas Riley admits he “finally got serious about the sport in the ninth grade,” and began playing in summer tournaments and taking lessons, both of which “really helped.”

He hit area links with his grandfather, Tom Riley, and father, also named Tom, who his father nicknamed “Gunner” in honor of then Pittsburgh Pirates baseball announcer Bob “Gunner” Prince.

“My pap gave than name to my dad, and when I was born my parents didn't want another Thomas, so they named me Gunnar,” Gunnar Riley explained, laughing. “But they did add Thomas as my middle name, so the family tradition continues.”

After four years as Charleroi's top player, he will continue his career next fall at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., where he will major in the school's Professional Golf Management (PGM) program. Methodist University boasts of having one of the top Division III programs in the country, and Riley says he is not necessarily planning on becoming a professional golfer, but instead “will learn the business of golf to become a club and teaching professional.”

“My degree will be in business, which will obviously help in this career,” Riley said. “I will be a licensed PGA professional and hope to work for a major golf equipment manufacturer, most likely in a corporate office environment. I'm thinking about a career along those lines, about getting into the marketing aspect of golf.”

However, one class in which Riley will be enrolled involves teaching individuals how to play golf and improve their games.

“I'll be qualified to teach someone the proper swing techniques, as well as all other parts of the game,” Riley said, but added laughing, “of course, for a small fee.”

As Riley's golf career progressed at Charleroi, he visited Methodist University, toured the campus and campus golf course, met with golf management officials, discussed the program and decided Methodist best represented his golfing plans.

Riley's career at Charleroi has been a model of consistency, Wiehl noted, with his (nine hole) scoring average dropping from 39.5 (as a freshman) to 38.5 (sophomore) to 38 (junior) to 37.8 this season as a senior. He missed qualifying for the WPIAL championship as a freshman by two strokes, but qualified as a sophomore, junior, and senior. This year at the WPIAL championship at Sewickley Heights, Riley tied for first with 75, but lost in playoff to the defending WPIAL champion. At the Pennsylvania state Western Regional qualifier October 16 at Tom's Run in Blairsville, Riley tied for fourth with a 73. In the Pennsylvania state championships in York, he tied for 19th.

“Gunnar can hit it long and straight, but he has pretty good iron game as well and one of the best short games in my 25 years as coach,” Wiehl said. “He putts quite well and has a well-rounded game.”

However, even though Riley's game in itself is impressive, Wiehl noted that Riley's most significant has been in “course management. Gunnar knows where to put the ball for his approach to the green. He has good control of his swing and the ball and can put the ball in good position for his shot to the green.”

Riley's best nine-hole scores of 32, 34 and 34, and his best 18-hole score of 67, at Chippewa Golf Club in Bentleyville reinforce Wiehl's assessment.

“I just try to do the same swing every time,” Riley said, adding that Charleroi's home course is the Mon Valley Country Club. “When my driver is on I can get it out there averaging 270 yards, and my irons are one of best parts of my game.”

Looking beyond his individual accomplishments, Riley pointed to his junior season when Charleroi tied for the section title, the Cougars' first title in 20 years, and this past season when his Cougars won the title outright as his most memorable moments with the team.

“Being successful as a team is very rewarding,” he said.

But Riley has one more season in a Cougars uniform. As a freshman, he batted .451 for Charleroi's baseball team, which ranked him among the WPIAL's top 50 batters. After playing shortstop and second base, he will move to centerfield this spring.

Riley's achievements at Charleroi are also evident in his academic records, where he maintains a 3.8 grade average, earning him a spot among the top 20 students in his senior class. He is a member of the National Honor Society, treasurer of the FBLA, a member of the Ski Club and SAAD, and lists his involvement with the Cougar Crazies, who enthusiastically support the football and basketball teams, as being among his fondest memories at Charleroi.

“I don't play those sports, but I like being involved and supporting the teams,” he said.

Les Harvath is a contributing writer.