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Marion County's newest sport, middle school golf, begins first ever season after long planning process

Mar. 30—FAIRMONT — Golfers in Marion County may notice more people on the course this spring. And these new golfers are a lot younger than most.

Marion County Schools launched new middle school golf programs that play during the spring sports season. West Fairmont, East Fairmont and the North Marion district all have teams in the inaugural season of middle school golf. Fairmont Catholic School has also fielded a middle school golf team.

The new county-only league is the brainchild of Fairmont Senior High golf coach Luke Corley, North Marion High golf coach Chance Hearn and East Fairmont High golf coach David Webb.

"We all went together, and we saw the need for a middle school golf team for a long time," Corley said. "We were finally able to get that established with the help of Chad Norman, Dr. [Donna] Heston and the Marion County Board of Education."

Corley approached Norman with the idea, and Norman was fully on board with it. After researching the idea, Norman and Corley found that middle school golf is sanctioned by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, is co-ed and doesn't have a presence in North Central West Virginia.

With that information, Norman wrote a proposal and presented it to Heston and the Board of Education. The Board approved the creation of middle school golf teams on Feb. 19 and approved the coaches that same meeting.

"I certainly commend Mr. Norman as well as the athletic directors and the principals for getting this swiftly before you as well as personnel and making sure all those credentials and certifications are up and those recommendations are in," Heston said at the Feb. 19 board meeting. "They plan to begin in March with the board's approval. And so that's for a middle school feeder golf program. Our goal is certainly to generate interest among female and male athletes and increase our participation and interest in golf as well as our expertise."

The Board approved Donnie Neal to coach West Fairmont, Bre Debryznski to coach East Fairmont and Hearn to coach North Marion, referred to as Monongah Middle in the agenda. Chris Pallota became coach of Fairmont Catholic through a separate process not connected to the public schools.

Pallota, a basketball coach at Fairmont Catholic, found out about the new teams when Corley asked if Pallota's daughters would be interested. Pallota approached Fairmont Catholic's athletic director about it, and the AD decided Fairmont Catholic could have its own team.

"He decided that he would just rather have our own team at Fairmont Catholic," Pallota said. "I guess we had enough interest. We had about eight kids interested. And so I would go ahead and coach our team."

Neal, who also coaches football at West Fairmont, first heard of the plan for middle school golf when the school's principal and athletic director approached him about it. He never played on a golf team, so he worked closely with Corley to get things set up.

"Working with him, it was one of those things where we're trying to get these kids ready for high school," Neal said. "That's what the whole program is about because down south, they've had middle school golf programs for a few years now."

According to Corley, the schools put up sign up sheets to gauge interest. Each public school received over 40 kids showing interest in playing. Unfortunately, because of how crowded golf courses could get with 40 player teams, the teams are limited to 15 members maximum.

West Fairmont reached exactly 15 members, mostly sixth and seventh graders, for the start of the season. Neal said that several football players showed interest at first but eventually lost it when they discovered both sports play in the fall in high school.

Fairmont Catholic, meanwhile, has the eight players that showed initial interest on its roster. Pallota said it's pretty evenly split among sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

"We have two sixth graders, three seventh graders and three eighth graders," Pallota said.

While finding players wasn't an issue, Corley said finding coaches was. Corley said that school principals like East Fairmont's Debra Conover helped find coaches for the teams.

There has also already been a coaching change. According to Hearn in a text message, he will not be coach of the North Marion team. Instead, that will be Joe Rinehart.

While high school golf plays in the fall months, middle school golf set its schedule for the spring to avoid conflicting with the high school teams for time on the course.

The first match of the middle school golf season was set for March 27 between West Fairmont and North Marion at Green Hills Country Club. West Fairmont showed up, but North Marion could not make it at the last second — a growing pain of the new sport.

While there have been challenges, there has been help elsewhere. Pallota said the local golf courses in Marion County have been very accommodating to the teams.

"They've given us access pretty much whenever we would like," Pallota said. "We can go practice and go to the driving ranges. They've been really supportive."

According to Neal, West Fairmont and Fairmont Catholic share Fairmont Field Club as their home course. North Marion has Green Hills, and East Fairmont has Apple Valley Country Club.

With it's the first ever season of middle school golf in Marion County, there are a lot of hopes and expectations riding on it. Neal and Pallota expect to be competitive and prepare their golfers for playing high school golf. Corley hopes other counties will be inspired to begin their own middle school programs.

"Hopefully, Harrison County, Mon County and all the other counties and the Big X schools will start middle school golf teams as well," Corley said. "Then we can turn it into just like the high school with a conference and everything like that."

There's also the hope the middle school programs create a competitive balance at the high school level across the state.

Corley believes that high schools in the southern half of West Virginia have a competitive advantage because they have middle school feeder programs. Winfield won the state class AA championship last year with a 50 stroke lead, and it's not just with one team.

"I'm coaching the [North-South All-Star tournament], and I took the average of the North team score and the average of the South team score, and if you take the four best scores from the state tournament and add them up, they still beat us by 50 strokes because they're more advanced in the southern part of the state because they already have middle school golf established," Corley said.

With the season now started, eyes are on the teams as they compete for a county title. The first ever county middle school golf championship will be in early May at Green Hills, according to Neal.

Corley said he'd like to thank Norman, Heston, the Board of Education, the golf courses, Hearn and Webb and the middle school administrations for helping this all come together.

Reach Colin C. Rhodes at 304-367-2548