Ask Troy Williams how he was able to coach a group of young golfers to the PGA Junior League National Championships for the second year in a row, and he’ll tell you what he did the moment he got home from last year’s trip.
He started planning for next season.
“It’s a long road to get there,” Williams, Cedar Boulevard, said. “We started in January with practicing at Top Golf.”
It culminated with a group of eight golfers from the tri-state area aged 13 and under going to Scottsdale, Arizona, to compete as Team Pennsylvania from October 5-9. Just 12 teams–96 golfers out of more than 60,000 who competed on teams through the season around the country–advanced to nationals.
No team representing Pennsylvania had made it to nationals before 2021. Now, Williams’ squad has gone two years in a row, finishing 11th both times.
Since the 2021 nationals, Williams has established the Hot Shot Golf Academy, using Westwood Golf Club in West Mifflin as its home course. Following a season of team competitions, Williams put together an all-star roster, under the academy’s umbrella, competing as Team Pennsylvania.
“It’s funny–this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those kids, and now some of them have gotten to go (to nationals) twice,” said Caitlyn LaVelle, who handles the marketing and business side of things at Hot Shot. “Troy’s done such a great job getting them back there.… You can see how he connects with the kids.”
Three of the players who went to Scottsdale were on the all-star team last year, although one, Carson Higgenbotham of West Virginia, tested positive for COVID-19 upon arriving in Arizona and was not able to compete.
“This year was a lot more laid back, having been there last year,” Williams said. “We kind of knew what to expect, especially for the players returning. We didn’t have to go through COVID testing, so the kids could just focus on playing golf. It was just a first-class experience–one I’m sure they’ll never forget. I know I won’t.”
To reach the national tournament, Team Pennsylvania advanced through a sectional qualifier at Westwood, a sectional tournament at Treesdale Golf & Country Club in Gibsonia, and then regionals at Milham Park Golf Club in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“I kind of called this my revenge tour,” Williams quipped, noting that in 2019 his team lost to teams representing Columbus and Cleveland at regionals.
Then last year Team Pennsylvania beat Columbus in the regional finals to advance to nationals. This year, Team Pennsylvania beat Cleveland in the semifinals and Columbus in the finals at regionals–both on the final putt.
It was extra emotional this year because it was Jacob Rainieri, of Canton, Ohio, who sank that winning put for Team Pennsylvania in the regional finals after he dealt with the loss of his father early and then a broken arm.
It was on to the Grayhawk Golf Club in Arizona where the team played in two-player pairs, as league play is held, at nationals.
“There was a lot of pressure on us this year,” Williams said of the 2022 season. “We were defending regional champs. Everybody wanted to knock us off.”
It will likely be more of the same next season, and Williams and LaVelle are already preparing.
There were no Mt. Lebanon kids on the Team Pennsylvania all-star group, but Williams said a Mt. Lebanon Magazine story earlier this year helped drum up interest, and six young Lebo golfers joined the Hot Shot Golf Academy program, with more likely ready to sign on next season and, who knows, perhaps eventually make that trip to nationals.