Taking Falcon golf to new heights - The Explorer: Import

Taking Falcon golf to new heights

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Posted: Monday, June 12, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

June 7, 2006 - For the second time in as many holes, Laura Jabczenski found herself misfiring on a drive, this time ripping a ball at high velocity into the trees along the right side of hole No. 5 at the Dell Urich Golf Course May 31.

Those standing on adjacent fairways needed to keep their heads up.

It took a minor adjustment - keep her shoulder in and the club face straight - and a quick pep talk from Mark Polich and Jabczenski's next drive landed squarely on the green, giving the shy yet unbelievably talented golfer a chance to shoot for the first eagle of her very young career.

"You see, every once in a while something I suggest works," said Polich, the Catalina Foothills High School girls golf coach extending his right hand for a high-five.

In the fall, Jabczenski will enter Orange Grove Middle School as an eighth grader but this summer she's already working toward her eventual golf career at Catalina Foothills and beyond in Polich's Foothills Elite Golf Academy, or FEGA.

On this day, Jabczenski is holding her own in a foursome of Foothills' top golfers, including seniors Sage Suffecool, Jesse Bluestein and Andrea Ruth.

FEGA has helped Foothills break the stranglehold that Phoenix has had on girls state golf. The Falcon's state championship in 2004 was the first ever won by a 4A school from Southern Arizona and was the first program from the area to win a championship since 1970.

Since its inception two years ago, FEGA has played a significant role in molding the Falcons' girls into the golf powerhouse that it is today.

Polich took over the Falcons in 1999 when the team was still an intramural sport at Catalina Foothills. As players came and went from the program in the early years, the coach noticed an improvement in their games, but not a significant one.

He didn't have to look far for an answer. Around this time, Foothills was establishing the roots of its dynasties in other sports such as tennis and swimming - programs that have since extended their consecutive state title runs to seven and six years respectively.

"I looked around and saw that many of the star athletes in various sports participated in clubs during the off-season," said Polich, who has fueled his golf wisdom with more than 30 years of playing competitive golf. "Although there were many different organizations that offered tournaments and group lessons, there was no organization dedicated to developing elite golfers. FEGA is really my first attempt at Club Golf."

In fact, a program catering to elite golfers who want to reach the collegiate and professional ranks didn't exist anywhere in Southern Arizona.

At Foothills, players began to benefit from Polich's year-round lessons, even before FEGA was officially created. In the last three school years, the Falcons have sandwiched a state title (2004) between two state runner-up finishes.

Arizona Interscholastic Association rules don't prohibit high school golf coaches from working with their players during the off-season, affording Polich the opportunity to create the academy. FEGA is also not affiliated with the school in any capacity. Practices are held at The Practice Tee or at the Randolph Golf Center.

By working with the kids year round in FEGA, which disbands for high schoolers during the high school golf season, Polich is able to compensate those serious golfers who need to make up a lifetime's worth of lessons quickly.

"I know it takes a long time to learn this game and if you just start taking lessons at an early age, if you have reasonable athletic ability, and you stick at it long enough, you'll improve," said Polich. "But I decided I needed to do something more comprehensive, so that these kids would be able to improve in a very short time."

Developing quality players quickly also became a priority considering that in most cases he only can coach them for four years or less on the high school level, said the coach.

"I've taken kids who haven't touched a club and within three years had them shooting even par and that's pretty unusual and I think the only way you can do that is with some kind of comprehensive program," said Polich a self-proclaimed "stat freak."

Polich's program tracks every shot taken during a round or a tournament, which then gets entered into a database and analyzed before every practice. One of the many stats he keeps is "length of putt made" - figures the PGA has recently adopted as a viable stat.

Polich's will also use video technology to record and analyze swings. On days where they play rounds, Polich will walk the course with the girls offering advice and putting the girls through a mental workout as well as a physical one.

Jesse Bluestein has tracked every shot she's ever taken as a member of the Falcons and as a part of FEGA. The process can be tedious, sometimes downright maddening, but definitely worth it, said the senior.

"The thing I love about (Foothills) golf is that the coach actually makes a difference," said Bluestein, a multiple-sport athlete at Foothills. "All the players on our soccer team are on the best club teams in Tucson and have all their training from other sources. The sole reason this team is so good is because of the coach."

Meeting several times a week - whether it's putting and driving one-on-one with Polich at The Practice Tee in Marana or playing a round with FEGA counterparts at the Randolph Golf Complex - Bluestein is relying on FEGA to propel her career with a golf scholarship.

But FEGA isn't necessarily reserved for Foothills students or those from the district. Because he doesn't use any of the school or district's facilities, Polich can offer FEGA to those outside of the Foothills.

His program is open to any elite golfers who want to take that next step toward bettering their game. The program has 10 members, including players from Ironwood Ridge and Salpointe Catholic high schools. In the years to come, Polich, who also trains 10 adults, is hoping to add more local players to FEGA.

Women's golf as a whole has seen a dramatic upswing in the development of its players in just the last five years. Laura's sister, Heather, who now plays for Northern Arizona University, was a member of Polich's first Falcon team. Back then, Heather played out of the team's No. 1 slot and averaged a score of 53.8 per nine holes en route to becoming team MVP and Kino Region champ in 2000 and 2001. Last year, the scoring average of Andrea Ruth, Foothills' No. 6 player, was nearly seven strokes lower than Heather's.

"I don't think the athletes are much different, the training is that much better," said Polich.

The biggest obstacle for the coach is un-teaching the kids all the bad habits they have picked up from other coaches and parents over the years.

The countless hours in FEGA has spilled over to the high school level. Foothills golf is sure to be a dominant program once school reconvenes in the fall. Some say Foothills is benefiting from its affluent population where parents can spend more on golf lessons. Polich sees it differently.

"Nobody gave people this ability (to play golf)," said Polich. "They all work toward it, you may call them rich snobs from the Foothills but guess what, they had to work for it just like everybody else and they put the time in. Kids from other schools, if they only pick up a golf club during the golf season they can only advance so far, especially in the game of golf."

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