Near-miss motivates Uni High's Nelson to reach state

Near-miss motivates Uni High's Nelson to reach state

CHAMPAIGN — DJ Nelson is full of lessons learned from his time playing high school golf. One sticks out, especially when comparing his freshman and sophomore seasons with his junior one.

"The highs and lows are going to happen."

On the positive end of the spectrum for the Uni High senior: qualifying for state in each of his first two prep campaigns.

On the other side: finishing one shot shy of that achievement last year.

"Looking back, I think not making it to state was probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Nelson said, "as far as growth and maturation on the golf course."

Nelson will get to prove that in Tuesday's Class 1A Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin Regional at Harrison Park Golf Course in Danville.

His 37.8 nine-hole average ranks fourth locally, and first-year Illineks coach Jim Valete has provided Nelson with crucial tips for course management and decision-making.

"Getting involved this year was about (Nelson saying), 'I fell short last year and I'm not going to do that again,'" Valete said. "Everything we've done for the last six months have been all about that."

Nelson carded an 80 in last season's sectional round, landing just beyond the cut line. It deprived him of the chance to better 22nd- and 18th-place showings as a sophomore and freshman, respectively.

He describes that sectional performance as "one of those weird, flukey rounds" that ended with a 3-foot putt lipping out on the 18th hole as a playoff bid was on the line.

"I was too focused on what the external views of me were versus what I thought and what I perceived about myself," Nelson said. "I made a point from then on to only focus on what I'm doing and what I can control."

That's something Valete stresses to his pupil, the only one in the Uni High program.

Valete, 55, didn't golf as a high-schooler but worked his handicap to the low single digits as a young adult.

"When I first saw (Nelson) playing golf ... my first reaction was, 'He's a really good ball striker,'" Valete said. "It's a real high level of talent, but it's really raw. ... And it needs to be developed."

Nelson also garnered plenty of information from Varun Chopra, a former Illineks star who graduated in 2017 and now competes at the University of Illinois. That's who delivered the "highs and lows" lesson to Nelson.

All of this mentorship has Nelson feeling confident about his chances of getting back to state one final time.

"I think the biggest change for me this year is that, although the low numbers are still about the same, I feel like I've had less blow-up rounds," Nelson said, "where I sort of let things get away from me."

Nelson's improvements aren't mechanics-based, although Valete has encouraged the youngster to use some regular-season holes as a testing ground for certain aspects of his game.

"It might not have been the perfect shot for that situation ... but he's better prepared for the big time," Valete said. "That's what he's been focusing on, and I'm very optimistic."

That optimism isn't centered around a state berth alone. Valete truly feels Nelson can conquer the entire Class 1A field.

Nelson acknowledges that's been a longtime goal. But his mental development within golf over the last year provides perspective.

"I also understand that when you set a goal like winning state ... it can sort of be arbitrarily defined," Nelson said. "Hypothetically, I could go out and shoot 67 and 67 and get beat. So I'm more focused on trying to play the best I possibly can in the postseason and see where everything falls after that."