May 05, 2011

A big thrill for Little Mill: Club captures first GAP Team Matches title

 For the first time since joining the Golf Association of Philadelphia in 1985, Little Mill Country Club has conquered the Team Matches world.

  It slew two GAP Team Matches titans in Merion Golf Club and Tavistock Country Club and cooled off a hot Fox Hill Country Club Saturday to claim the 2011 crown. Little Mill is the 27th club to capture the Association’s longest-standing and most revered tradition.

  “Winning the GAP Team Matches was a thrill for our players,” Ryan McCarty, Little Mill’s captain, said. “We knew we had strong players, but it’s always tough to forecast how you’re going to compare to the most competitive teams. Little Mill had never won a championship in its 43-year existence, so we thought we might be due. As it turns out, the team played very well and we were pleasantly surprised with the results.”

  “It feels tremendous,” Michael LaGrasso, who earned eight points at home for Little Mill, added. “We all hugged afterwards. We were surprised as ever.”

  In the victory, Little Mill posted 75 points — 27 clear of its nearest rival and South Jersey brethren Tavistock. Merion amassed 47 points while Fox Hill posted 46 in the Playoff. The format is individual match play with 12 total players competing from each club. Three-man teams from each club play at the four sites with each individual match worth three points.

  But the event’s make-up marked an area of concern for Little Mill entering the Playoff, according to McCarty.

  “The lack of the experience with the format, in addition to being up against powerhouse teams — I thought those were going to be issues,” he said. “It’s hard to play golf if you focus on three separate matches at the same time, but our players seemed to have no trouble adapting to the format, which really helped us.”

  Little Mill did more than adapt; it excelled — both at home and on the road. Scott Bergson, Benjamin Smith and PJ Tighe anchored the club’s away efforts. Bergson swept his matches at Fox Hill to earn nine points while Tighe posted eight points at Tavistock. Smith, a Little Mill newcomer, earned nine points at Merion. Little Mill also defended its home course admirably. James Arsenault, LaGrasso and Mike Meisenzahl combined to produce a hefty 23 points.

  Team-depth helped propel Little Mill into the Playoff, and it again proved vital Saturday. Those playing in the No. 3 position averaged nearly seven points per venue.

  “What we tried to do is balance the team and to not give up too many points in one location,” McCarty said. “We didn’t know it would turn out that well.”

  “The difference between our team and everyone else is we were 12-deep,” LaGrasso added. “There were a lot of good clubs that were involved that were four or five deep, but we were 12-deep. We knew we were deep. We knew we had a good shot at [winning] it.”

  By claiming its first Team Matches title, Little Mill established a defining moment in its history.

  “There’s a great buzz around the club,” Jeffrey Zalis, Little Mill’s leading scorer in the 2011 campaign, said. “The members were extremely happy. People are really excited.”

  “It feels incredible to add Little Mill to a list of distinguished champions,” McCarty added.

  The victory culminated a three-year journey for Little Mill that featured countless player rotations and formidable opponents. In 2009, it challenged 32-time Team Matches Champion Huntingdon Valley Country Club for a place in Division AA, but fell short, 33-29.25. The loss, however, provided a monumental moment of realization.

  “We knew then that we were close. It was just a matter of time,” LaGrasso said.

  With a competitive drive and deep player pool to boot, Little Mill finally forged its Division AA spot by knocking off Philadelphia Country Club, 64.5-8.5, in a 2010 Challenge. A renewed vigor spurred a unified recommitment to the GAP Team Matches this year. Players took to the Marlton, N.J. track weekly to sharpen their game in preparation for the match ahead. To say that Little Mill wanted to win the 2011 GAP Team Matches is the epitome of an understatement.

  “This was a goal we seriously had set, and we accomplished it,” LaGrasso said.

  Little Mill’s accomplishment gives the club a prominent voice among Huntingdon Valley, Merion and Tavistock in the Team Matches conversation. Whether it can sustain its tone remains to be seen, though the outlook at Little Mill beams brighter than ever.

  “Right now, we’re pretty strong as well as strong for the foreseeable future,” Zalis said.

  “We’re aware that they’ve all been powerhouses for years and years, but at this time, we’re competitive, and we’re going to try and stay competitive,” McCarty added.

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