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Who to Watch

Teams

Chantilly: The defending region champs have everybody back this year and have been posting scary scores so far this season, including a 1-over-par 281 at Bowling Green Golf Course in their season opener.

Madison: The Warhawks finished one stroke behind Chantilly at the regional tournament last fall, and they figure to make it close this year too. All their studs are back for revenge, and they’ve added another weapon: freshman Siena Ferrick.

South County: Coming off five consecutive trips to the regional tournament, the Stallions can finally expect to contend at that stage with traditional area powers thanks to four golfers consistently finding the 70’s.

Players

Connor Messick, Chantilly: Messick’s worst round in last week’s 72-hole stretch was a 71. The senior is ready to lead a team that won’t settle for anything less than a state championship this year.

Nathan Chuwait, Thomas Jefferson: The Colonials’ star sophomore has sprouted up a few inches, adding some length off the tee. More importantly, his short game is still rock solid, helping him card a career-best 65 at Laurel Hill last Thursday.

Edric Wung, Langley: Wung has been going about business as usual so far this season, posting scores right around 70. A young Langley squad will only go so far as their senior leader takes them.

Trailing his playing partner by one stroke, David Rabil lined up a 3-foot birdie putt on the final hole of last Thursday’s Stallion Invitational at Laurel Hill Golf Club. The South County junior was three feet away from tying Thomas Jefferson’s Nathan Chuwait, an impressive feat considering Chuwait had led him by three strokes with three holes to play.

Rabil’s putt powered through the break and lipped out against the edge of the hole. He walked off the green shaking his head, forced to settle for a 6-under-par round of 66.

The new state of Rabil’s game was summed up in that reaction. Having shattered the 18-hole school record for the second time in two days, he said all he could do was think about how he could have done better. It didn’t help that he had to stomach a second-place finish in the wake of Chuwait’s own career round of 65.

Yet second place was miles away from the state of Rabil’s game earlier this year. After a solid sophomore season that saw him set the 18-hole school record with a round of 70, Rabil and South County coach John Caulfield decided to overhaul his golf swing in the offseason. They wanted to get rid of the batter’s tendencies built into his swing by years of playing baseball, the sport he favored throughout his childhood. Rabil played both sports his freshman year, but gave up baseball when he began to take off as a golfer.

He showed flashes of brilliance last fall, but Caulfield saw inconsistencies that hinted at what he called “unconscious competency,” a condition shown by talented players who don’t always understand why they’re playing well or why they’re playing poorly. Last November, Caulfield enrolled Rabil and eight other youth in the Tournament Players Institute, the golf school he runs alongside Chris Steele, a former European Tour player. Steele and Rabil made a commitment to instill consistency and eradicate the wristy baseball move that was careening shots off to the left.

“Really through almost a month and a half ago, they really weren’t seeing the results that they were hoping for,” Caulfield said. “Then all of a sudden, it was there. He now understood what it was he needed to be doing if it went wrong so he could recover on his own in the middle of a round without a coach or a video camera and know how he can get back on track.”

After some rounds in the 90’s just a few weeks earlier, Rabil began to settle into a groove that kept him consistently in the low 70’s. With Caulfield caddying for him, he shot a routine 73 at the Bobby Bowers Memorial Junior Golf Tournament at Springfield County Club in July. When the round was over, the two of them couldn’t help but shrug, marveling at the simplicity of the equation: just hit your fairways, hit your greens, make some putts, and you’ll come away with a low number.

“I had a rough spring and a very tough summer, but I kept grinding and kept working hard, and I knew the hard work would pay off soon,” said Rabil, who helps out at Laurel Hill over the summer as a volunteer. “My swing is finally starting to come together. I’m starting to make some putts, and everything’s kind of coming my way.”

As his confidence rises with each round, Rabil’s scores continue to fall lower and lower. The fall season kicked off last week with a whirlwind stretch featuring four tournament rounds in four days, beginning Aug. 12 with the Cougar Classic at International Golf and Country Club, followed by the Charger Challenge at Pleasant Valley Golf Course, the Atomic Invitational at Twin Lakes Golf Course and the Stallion Invitational at Laurel Hill. Rabil’s scores at those events? 77, 74, 69, 66.

The 69 at Twin Lakes marked a mental breakthrough for Rabil, who had never broken 70 before.

“I think once I saw a number with a ‘6’ in front, I started realizing ‘OK, I can do this. I’m a good player. Just come out and be consistent and you can do this every time.’”

Rabil and his teammates gave the South County golf program its own breakthrough a week earlier at tryouts when they posted a four-score total of 295. The back-to-back Patriot District champions had never busted the 300 barrier before. Caulfield took his players aside and explained to them that they finally had a legitimate chance to overtake area powers Chantilly, Madison and Langley this season. Indeed, Chantilly won last year’s regional tournament with an aggregate score of 301 at Twin Lakes.

Riding Rabil’s steady wave of improvement, the Stallions’ scores have come down with each event, culminating in a blistering 291 total that came out eight strokes ahead of second-place Chantilly at Laurel Hill.

“These scores haven’t been mistakes,” Caulfield said. “They have now given me a signal that they’re capable of doing it on a regular basis.”

Caulfield’s unit has been strengthened this season by the return of Ashley Dingman, a junior who had moved to Northern California with her family a few years ago before coming back this year. Dingman is a consistent 70’s shooter, as are Adam Bacon and David Ross.

“I think if we just come out and try to play our best we can be contenders,” Rabil said. “We set our sights high, and we’re ready to go. No one was really looking at us in the beginning of the season, but we’re starting to post the numbers, and I think it’s exciting.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com