DECATUR — It was heart-breaking for Wes Hillen when he failed to reach the Illinois High School Association state golf tournament while in high school.
As both a junior and senior at Columbia High School — not far from downtown St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River — Hillen won his regional tournament but missed qualifying through the sectional by a single stroke.
For an aspiring golfer hoping state tournament exposure would put him in front of college recruiters, he was crushed.
“Some people don’t realize how much of a financial difference it can make to get a scholarship offer,” Hillen said. “That’s definitely in the back of your head.”
That was four years ago. And what then felt like a body blow now feels a bit like a lucky break.
After being denied a chance to impress college recruiters, Hillen marketed himself and found his college home in Decatur. Now four years later, he has little time to celebrate recently becoming the back-to-back College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin individual champion and on Saturday will leave with Millikin coach Sam Osborne for Florida to compete in the NCAA Division III national tournament.
Already, 22-year-old Hillen and 25-year-old Osborne are narrowing their focus. “Stay humble, stay hungry,” Osborne said. “That’s my coaching mantra.”
It’s been a memorable season for both Hillen, the senior marketing major who will go down as one of Millikin’s best ever, and Osborne, who in his second season on the job was this week voted CCIW Coach of the Year by league peers.
“We’ve had a fantastic spring,” said
Osborne, who was a senior on the Millikin golf team when Hillen arrived as a freshman. “And with Wes we still have a little more work to do.”
Hillen and Osborne will reach the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort in Destin, Fla., on Saturday, and Hillen will begin competing on Tuesday.
A total of 41 teams and five individuals from non-qualifying teams will compete over four days. After two days, the low 15 teams will continue, as will the low six individuals not on those teams.
That means Hillen, whose 73.0 scoring average ranked sixth nationally in Division III this season, will need to be particularly sharp.
“I’ll probably have to be within five shots of the lead,” he guessed Wednesday while contemplating what’s ahead.
Hillen heads to the national tournament armed with a thick, muscular build and no shortage of confidence.
His game has matured and his demeanor has mellowed since he first contacted Pat Etherton, then the Millikin golf coach, and expressed interest in a school where friends and former high school teammates Blaine Scoggins and Brandon Weisenborn were already flourishing.
Hillen, who grew up playing junior golf in Nebraska, settled in at Millikin, joined the TKE fraternity and began refining a game that Osborne has monitored.
“He is very long off the tee,” Osborne said. “He’s hitting wedges where other guys are hitting 6-iron. The one thing I’ve tried to do is improve his short game. If he can hit his wedge inside of 10 feet, he’s looking at birdie. And I stress to our guys that putting is the most important part.”
Osborne describes Hillen as “fiery,” which is a partial compliment.
“He screams after missed putts,” Osborne said. “But I’ve worked on that not affecting him on the next hole. That’s what hurt him as a freshman or sophomore.”
Hillen quickly stresses that he is not one of those temper-tantrum cases that throws and breaks clubs.
“I do not bust up equipment,” he said. “I understand my limits on anger. You can only hit a club into the ground so hard before it snaps.
“Improving that part of my game comes from a mixture of maturity and knowing I have the skills to come back from whatever it is that made me angry. I’ve learned it’s not as big a deal as you think it is.”
While Hillen is the only Millikin golfer advancing to the national tournament, he’s not the only Big Blue team member to contribute to a spring that produced six team victories in eight events and a runnerup finish to Illinois Wesleyan in the CCIW Tournament.
Freshman Austin Havens of Pleasant Plains opened eyes when he shot a school record 64 at Red Tail Run. Havens tied for second in the CCIW tournament and junior Brian Barry of Woodridge finished sixth.
And Osborne, who believes in a big roster plus a training regimen of weights, yoga and swimming, has Effingham High School ace Anthony Lechman among those in his next recruiting class. Osborne believes the best it yet to come.
“I think we’re going to be even better next year,” he said. “Even though we lose one of the best players in Millikin history, he has handed out a lot of good information that our younger guys can use.”
Meanwhile, Hillen will graduate on May 19 and is already working as an intern for Foster Financial Services, where he will continue to find employment after graduation.
“I’ll be living in Decatur, working for Larry Foster and will help Sam in any way I can with Millikin golf,” Hillen said.
That won’t be difficult, since the two of them will be sharing a house together not far from the Millikin campus.
Etherton, who gets credit for helping to bring Hillen to campus four years ago, is now the head football coach.
“I get no credit,” Etherton said. “It’s been all Wes. It’s the best decision he made in his life. I remind him of that all the time.”