A-K Valley golf preview: Leechburg's Barto returns as WPIAL champ
Matt Barto lines up his shot and concentrates on the little white ball.
He hits it and watches it land and bounce across the green playing surface.
Maybe later, he'll go outside and play some golf.
For now, this pingpong match is getting heated.
The incoming Leechburg senior doesn't just revel in taking down some of the top golfers in the state. He also enjoys beating his coach in another form of small ball.
“I don't do anything fancy,” Barto said. “I just hit it hard. I don't try to spin it or anything. He's won eight games, and I have five. But I won the last two.”
It's all part of the competitive and detail-oriented makeup of the defending WPIAL Class AA golf champion.
Coach Heath Shimer would prefer to play his star player at table tennis. Golf could present its problems.
“I can beat him at pingpong,” Shimer said. “Golf, probably not any more.”
Barto also hits it hard on the course, but few opponents have been able to go back-and-forth with him.
Barto is the clear favorite to repeat. He also carded his best finish at the PIAA tournament, taking second behind Fairfield's Isaiah Logue, who returns to defend his title.
“He's an animal,” Barto said. “He'll be tough to beat.”
But so will Barto, who has had a busy and productive summer. He won the International Junior Golf Tour's Philly Challenge in Malvern and took second at the Western Pa. Major at Nemacolin Woodlands' Mystic Rock.
He also attempted to make it into the U.S. Open at a local qualifier Westmoreland Country Club.
Barto has shown steady improvement each fall during his high school career. He was seventh in the WPIAL (Division II) as a freshman and third as a sophomore.
His rise has garnered attention from a few Division I colleges, including Rutgers, Delaware and Akron, the latter being his favorite. Shimer doesn't want to think about next fall when Barto will have graduated.
“If I can figure a way to keep him another year, I'll do it,” he joked.
It's only the first week of the season and Barto already is thinking about the state finals, which are in late October in York. But he knows he can't take WPIAL competition for granted.
“I want to win the WPIAL again,” he said. “You can't underestimate anyone in the WPIAL.”
While Barto is the top Alle-Kiski individual to watch this season, Fox Chapel appears to be the team to beat.
The Foxes return seniors Patrick Sheerer, Davis Dietrich, Jordan Alfery, Charlie Friend and Nathan Friday. Also look for freshman Anthony Cordaro to make an impact.
Fox Chapel made the WPIAL Class AA semifinals last season.
There's a new coach at Plum. Boys basketball coach Ron Richards has taken over for Keith Nonnenberg, who resigned for family reasons.
Richards is known for his intensity on the court, and his golfers are aware from attending games.
“One of the kids asked me, ‘Mr. Richards, is it true we're conditioning for golf? A couple players said you're going to make us run 200 yards and back, 150 yards and back...' ” Richards said with a laugh. “I told him, ‘Yeah, but only for the first five holes.”
Apollo-Ridge dropped its boys team.
The only girl playing on an otherwise all-boys team, Freeport's Audrey Clawson sharpened her game during the regular season last fall as a freshman and parlayed it into a fourth-place finish at the WPIAL Class AA championship.
Now, a year wiser and knowing what to expect, Clawson is looking for more.
“I want to improve each year,” she said. “I want to help the team as much as I can. It was exciting making it to the WPIAL championship as a team.”
Clawson also has had a frenzied summer of golf. In addition to playing a full junior tournament schedule, she worked as a volunteer at the Senior Players Championship at Fox Chapel Golf Club and the Mylan Classic at Southpointe.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.