You might be hard pressed to find someone who enjoyed this past summer as much as Chris Baloga did.
Baloga, the men’s golf coach at Loyola Maryland, got to watch senior Evan Brown qualify for and play in the United States Golf Association’s Western Amateur and the U.S. Amateur Championship. He celebrated when sophomore Carlo Pizzano won the Savannah Quarters Amateur and the Buddy Worsham Memorial Tournament and when freshman Mike Crowley captured the Maryland Junior Amateur. And he was encouraged when senior Brandon Berry finished second at the Delaware Open and advanced to the match play round at the Virginia Amateur.
“It makes me proud as a coach that we have the right guys here,” Baloga said. “You just hear them talk about how they just want to get better, and that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do for the 10 years that I’ve been here, to get to that level that we have now. This is kind of the start, and the cool thing is that the group we have this year will be the same group next year while adding just one more guy in. So we kind of have a year-and-half to see what this group can do.”
Baloga will have to bottle that excitement, however, until next spring because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Patriot League — of which the Greyhounds are a member — suspended all fall sports competition, which wiped out five scheduled events for the golf program.
“It’s definitely been interesting and something that I definitely was not expecting, but you’ve got to make the most of the situation that you’re in,” Crowley, a Hunt Valley resident and Calvert Hall graduate, said of COVID-19′s impact on college athletics. “My ultimate goal is to get my game to a level where I can play at the college level and have the success that these guys have had.”
The golfers flourished during the summer despite navigating a weighty amount of uncertainty in the spring when many states adopted stay-at-home orders that shut down golf courses for at least several weeks. With no access to courses or even driving ranges, Pizzano bought a net to pair with a hitting mat in his parents' backyard in College Park and putted at least 50 times on a mat in his bedroom. Crowley practiced wedge shots behind his parents' home to maintain feel.
Pizzano surprisingly credited his wins at the Savannah Quarters Amateur in Pooler, Georgia, in July and the Buddy Worsham Memorial Tournament in Bethesda in August to being quarantined during the outbreak.
“I give that success to really being happy and satisfied with my life again,” he said. “During quarantine, it was kind of depressing. But getting out to play a lot and play well, that just puts you in the right places. It was nice to win.”
Crowley won the weather-shortened Maryland Junior Amateur in White Hall a few days after Pizzano’s win at the Savannah Quarters. The 2019 Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association champion said the triumph provided a boost in morale before he joined his older, more experienced teammates at Loyola.
“It builds confidence,” he said. “These guys are at a different level than I’m at yet. They’re playing successfully at tournament and college golf, and that’s obviously a goal for me. I’m excited to get out there and compete with them and try to learn as much as I can from these guys.”
Brown did not come away with any victories, but his summer was perhaps more dramatic. He placed second at the Delaware Amateur Championship in Bridgeville, Delaware, in June before missing cuts at his next two tournaments. After making the cut and finishing 39th at the Western Amateur in Carmel, Indiana, in July, he participated in the 120th U.S. Amateur Championship in Bandon, Oregon, in August, missing the cut.
While disappointed about that result, Brown said he learned a lot from the experience.
“It’s the biggest stage of [amateur] golf and compared to other events like the Delaware Am where I placed second and shot 14 under, I look at that and think, ‘Oh, wow, I shot really well there, but there weren’t as many guys in that field that were as highly ranked as there are in the U.S. Am field,’” he said. “So at some level, it was kind of surreal that I was even able to participate in something like that because you’re competing against some of the top players in the world and you’re able to judge your game against them.”
Occasionally, the golfers played in the same tournaments over the summer, but they regularly kept in touch via group chat. They also kept tabs on each other to provide support — and motivation.
“You’re always trying to chase a guy, and Evan is that guy,” Pizzano said. “So seeing him play in the U.S. Am, I can play with Evan, and that gives me some assurance that I have potential, that I have a future, that I can be in those positions because that’s part of my goal. I want to play in the U.S. Am and many other tournaments. Seeing him play in them and with me being around him every day, it gives me the confidence that I can do it, too.”
Added Brown: “It makes me want to be better. I’ll say this selfishly, but I definitely don’t want to lose to these guys in tournaments and whatnot. But it’s nice to see that they’re all playing really well. It definitely makes me want to play well so that when we get back playing tournament golf or college golf, we’re all at the top of our games and able to play at a very high level because that’s what we’re all striving for.”
Despite the absence of a season, the golfers can continue to practice at the Country Club of Maryland in Towson on weekdays and Hillendale Country Club in Phoenix on weekends. And many of them will compete in the Middle Atlantic Amateur Championship in Bethesda in October.
If there is a season next spring, Baloga admitted that he is already expecting big things.
“We haven’t really won a regular-season event since I’ve been here, and I fully expect that to end this spring,” he said. “I think we’ll probably be the highest-ranked team in the conference, and I think we’ll do great. We have these guys that you’re talking to, and another four or five that are extremely competitive in the lineup. So it’s going to be very tough this year not only to make it into the lineup, but also to stay in the lineup because these guys are going to do a great job. But it’s going to be fun. I’ve been excited for the year, and it’s just a shame that it had to be pushed back until February, but knock on wood, if we’re good to go then, I’m really looking forward to it.”