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Leechburg junior golfer a contender

| Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, 12:13 a.m.
Leechburg junior Matt Barto is one of the top returning golfers in the WPIAL this season. Photographed in June 2012. Bill West | Leader Times

For the first time, the PIAA will crown champions in more than one classification in golf. That means there will be winners in Class AAA and AA this fall.

And that makes Matt Barto's eyes light up.

The junior from Leechburg took second in WPIAL Division II last season and qualified for the PIAA tournament, where he tied for 40th. But the state tournament was against players from the larger classification's schools.

WPIAL golf opens Thursday with a changed landscape. The “division” labels are gone, and teams are set by enrollment.

With the WPIAL and PIAA acknowledging champs in two classes, fairness could become the theme this season. Leechburg and Barto will compete in Class AA.

“After last year and experiencing everything, I think I can focus more this year,” Barto said. “My goal is to win (Class AA) for sure. If that's the case, and I'm not making (states) my goal, I will try and make a run at states.”

One of the area's better ball-strikers, Barto helped start Leechburg's program a few years ago. Now, he's looking to become its first WPIAL and/or PIAA champ. He isn't losing sleep over the anticipation, however.

“I really don't feel that much pressure,” Barto said. “I look at the high school season as more of a fun thing. The matches are (nine holes), the courses are shorter and easier. The key is not to take it for granted.”

Barto has had a strong summer. He was fourth out of 48 players at the International Junior Golf Tour's Jelly Bean Open in Hershey and 12th out of 90 in a PGA Junior Series event at Penn State's Blue Course.

And he's had his share of highlights. During the second day of the Cleveland Junior Open at Red Tail Golf Club in Avon, Ohio, he holed a 6-iron from 170 yards on the 440-yard, par-4 10th hole.

Just recently, he spun his approach into the hole for an eagle from 110 yards on the par-5 second hole at Birdsfoot Golf Club.

“I just want to stay focused and keep working at my game,” Barto said.

Valley senior Bill Clark returns after reaching the individual semifinals last season. Valley could be a team to watch, with several key golfers returning, including Nick Licata and Luke Felack, who will join Clark in the starting lineup.

Freeport senior Robbie Miller also is poised to have a big season. The Yellowjackets' No. 1 player, Miller is unique because he plays four sports — basketball, baseball and hockey are the others — and has found time to earn a first-degree black belt in karate.

After competing in Division I, Section 2 for years, Freeport has moved into Section 3-AA, trading regular opponents like Ford City, Burrell and Apollo-Ridge for Riverview, Deer Lakes and St. Joseph.

Behind proven starters Evan Cravener and Jordan Klodowski, Kittanning should push for the Section 1-AA title. The Wildcats move down from Class AAA.

Shady Side Academy is a Class AA school, but is voluntarily “playing up” in boys and girls golf.

Knoch (Section 8-AAA) and Ford City (1-AA) will host sectional tournaments.

Teams have been holding tryouts much earlier this year. Leechburg has been teeing off around 7 a.m. this week.

Fox Chapel began the season with its own version of training camp, taking a road trip to Oglebay Resort in West Virginia.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-224-2696 or bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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