Centennial senior Smith sets sights on state championship

CHAMPAIGN – When Centennial senior Joe Smith played in the state golf tournament as a sophomore, he was struck by the obvious nerves displayed by his playing partner.

The duo was in contention for the state championship, and Smith was having the time of his life. The playing partner, a senior, wasn't.

"I remember the kid was talking to me about how nervous he was the whole round," said Smith, a three-time veteran of the state tournament and the reigning Big 12 Conference medalist. "I was sitting there like, 'What's wrong with this kid? Why's he so nervous? I don't get it.' "

Smith couldn't relate because he's been in so many similar situations, having played tournament golf since he was little. It has become natural for him, and if Smith advances out of Monday's Class 2A sectional at Quincy, as expected, he'll have another chance to prove he's at his best in the big events.

"There's more pressure on me to play well in the summer than there is at this time of the year," Smith said.

Smith tied for seventh at state as a freshman, tied for third a year later and tied for fifth last fall. He appears poised for another appearance, leading The News-Gazette area with a 36.7 stroke average this season.

"Some of those kids, they get to state and they just choke," he said. "But this will be my fourth time being there, if I make it, and I'm pretty comfortable playing under pressure."

Smith acknowledged he put some pressure on himself during the summer as he tried to nail down his college status. It remains unsettled, but Smith said he's spoken mostly with coaches from Illinois State and might be leaning in that direction.

"I think I've handled it fine," Smith said. "At this point I'm just trying to forget about everything, get everything off my mind and just play golf."

When it comes to the prep season, Smith is relaxed and ready. His comfort level, he said, stems from his confidence.

"It's crazy how much of this game is confidence," Smith said. "If you don't have confidence, you're not going to score.

"Right now I'm playing great golf. I know when I go out that I'm going to hit the ball well. I just need to make some putts, really."

Having been in position previously to win a state title, it would be natural for Smith to have expectations of winning it this time around. One difference: Smith's three previous trips to state came when the tournament was played at The Den. With the IHSA moving to a three-class system, this year's tourney will be at Weibring Golf Club at Illinois State.

"I want to win state; that's my goal. But I'm not putting pressure on myself to do it."

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