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Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

Only a sophomore, Tanner Buehnerkemper has played a critical role the last two seasons on the Monticello boys’ golf team.

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MONTICELLO — Acquiring the talents of a program-changing athlete is exciting for a coach.

Andrew Turner was able to experience that feeling twice in as many years.

First it was with Tanner Buehnerkemper in the fall of 2018. The freshman joined Monticello boys’ golf and immediately became its No. 1 scorer. The very next season, Will Ross performed a similar feat during his freshman season, quickly challenging Buehnerkemper for that top spot, with the two trading it back and forth throughout a campaign that concluded in a Class 1A sectional.

“It’s exciting,” Turner said. “The challenge, obviously, with golfing sometimes is your numbers and making sure you build programs. You’ve got to continue to kind of market your program. So with these two coming in at that age, that was helpful because those kinds give you that foundation.”

That’s exactly what Buehnerkemper and Ross want to provide for the Sages.

What that leads to in the 2020 boys’ golf season is anyone’s guess, given summer contact days currently are suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Sages know exactly what they hope will happen, though.

“As a team, I think we have a chance to go to state,” Ross said. “I wouldn’t want to be there without my team.”

Each youngster is familiar with competing on a state stage — albeit the IESA one instead of the IHSA version.

Buehnerkemper and Ross each qualifed for junior high state in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

The former finished tied for 54th, 51st and 46th in his three tries, while the latter snagged a share of 46th, outright 17th place and a portion of 23rd in his trio of opportunities.

Buehnerkemper was the first to get the call to the high school level.

“I definitely thought that I was good enough to be one of those varsity players,” he said. “But, my freshman year, I didn’t realize I was going to have to play the number one (position).”

Buehnerkemper rated 34th locally in 2018 with a 44.3 nine-hole stroke average, finishing a shade behind senior Luke Stringer (42.8) for the Sages’ top scoring average.

And when Monticello was forced to play up in a 2A regional that postseason, Buehnerkemper responded by qualifying individually alongside Stringer for the following week’s sectional.

“Luke Stringer was probably one of the biggest mentors I had,” Buehnerkemper said. “He taught me what it was like to be a number one and to lead the team and just be that role model for everyone else.”

Ross also had an important interaction with a Sages upperclassman — although it was when Ross was in sixth grade.

“I saw Noah Wright, who’s playing (golf) in college now at Grace College,” Ross said of the 2018 Monticello graduate, “and he would talk to me and be like, ‘You’re coming in, you’re going to be the number one.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know about that.’”

Ross became a believer as he got closer to entering high school.

“I knew how good he was,” Buehnerkemper said of Ross. “I knew that, for me, it would take a decent amount of hard work and good scores to keep my number one spot.”

Neither Buehnerkemper nor Ross was the Sages’ wire-to-wire No. 1 scorer last season. Ross collected a team-best 42.2 nine-hole stroke average — 15th-best locally — and Buehnerkemper was just behind him at 42.6.

Turner feels these results are a testament to the friendly competitiveness surrounding the duo.

“Last year early, I think that Tanner, you could see a little bit of the fact, ‘Hey, this guy is coming right in,’” Turner said. “I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out between the two of them, but they, I think, over time have realized, ‘Hey, we can help each other, make each other better and help the program if we work together.’”

At the heart of the matter, both boys want Monticello to be at the top of any tournament’s leaderboard — or as close to it as possible.

Back in the Class 1A playoff field in 2019, the Sages took second place in their regional behind an 86 from Buehnerkemper and an 87 from Ross. The fun didn’t continue in the sectional round, but Monticello being left out of the state field has its returnees wanting more.

“I felt like I did well, except for the end of the season,” Ross said. “I was kind of disappointed, so I was looking forward to coming back stronger (in 2020) and finishing strong.”

The 6-foot Buehnerkemper and 6-4 Ross each have spent their stay-at-home time readying for more golf. Both have a basement putting setup, and the recent reopening of area courses means getting repetitions should get easier.

All that will remain is being allowed to get back together as a team under IHSA auspices.

“We’re always going to be competitive, but it’s going to be really good to see everyone again,” Buehnerkemper said. “Get on the course, be with teammates and coaches, have fun and get back to work.”

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).