Top-flight talent from across the Southeast is set for a high-stakes showcase at Sunset Hills Country Club this weekend for the 2018 Trojan Invitational.
The elite field of prep powerhouses will tee it up today for the first round with a 3:15 p.m. shotgun start and the action resumes on Saturday at noon for the 36-hole, stroke play format.
Now in its fourth year, the Trojan Invitational has become a must-play event under the direction of Carrollton High School boys' head coach Kurt Hitzeman, who once again landed some of the premier programs — across all classifications — to come on board for what should be two days of highly-competitive golf.
Among the nine-team field are two reigning state champions in Starr's Mill (Class AAAAA) and Columbus (Class AAAA), along with Colquitt County, Darlington, Lafayette, LaGrange, St. Pius X, Auburn (Ala.) and the host Trojans. All nine teams finished in the top-10 in their respective classifications last year and more than 20 percent of the field has already committed to play college golf.
Hitzeman noted that the goal for the Trojan Invitational over the past few years has been to create an atmosphere and competitive environment unlike any other tournament in the state.
"Every coach and program that is coming in here to Sunset Hills is very well-respected in the Southeast," Hitzeman said. "We've got all the resources here to put on an event that nobody else can, and that's what we're trying to do. We want to make sure that when schools come here and they travel as far away as South Carolina or Alabama or south Georgia that they leave wanting to come back and they tell everybody about their experience here."
What has made the Trojan Invitational an even more all-around community effort is the working relationship between Carrollton High School and Sunset Hills, along with corporate sponsors such as Carrollton Realty & Insurance (CR&I) and Auto-Owners Insurance.
Also getting involved this year is the SHCC Men's Golf Association with Shane Miles, who serves as the MGA president, backing the event to make it an even more enticing draw.
"Coach Kurt and I started talking late last year about this tournament and getting the Men's Golf Association more behind the Carrollton High School program for both boys and girls. We had a year-end meeting in December for MGA and had coach Kurt do a presentation," said Miles, who will serve as Saturday's starter on the tee box. "The men seemed to get behind it and were in support of it. So we allocated some funds to spend on the tournament and we've done a lot of detail-oriented things to make it a real world-class event."
Hitzeman said the relationship between the MGA at Sunset Hills and Carrollton golf has been a tremendous boost for the program.
"Shane's a Trojan and he's supporting his alma mater. He's always been great out here with the kids. We can come out and practice and he's been out on the course and talked to them and helped them out," Hitzeman said. "That's the type of relationship we want to keep cultivating with the different members that really play a lot out here, that are golfers. Those guys are instrumental to our kids growing in the game, loving the game and staying with the game even beyond their involvement with our program."
SHCC General Manager Justin Japour, a former star at Valdosta State University and Class A PGA Certified Professional, also lauded how the club and school work together for the greater good of each party.
"At first, Kurt was like an army of one out there and now there's a lot of members showing support and I wouldn't be surprised if you see a lot of spectators, not necessarily parents, but spectators from the club out here to watch the tournament because this town does get behind Carrollton High School," Japour said.
"This tournament is just the stepping stone of where we're going to go with it, especially with the direction and vision that Kurt's got and with all of the members' support. They're happy to have it here. This isn't a club that looks down on junior golf or high school golf. They embrace it because they know it's reflective of their community and where we're going."
Another major development to the Invitational this year was being able to move it from a weekday to a weekend showcase, which will also create more opportunities for programs from even further away to potentially come on board in the future.
"We've always wanted a weekend tournament. We wanted to give teams the opportunity to come on the weekend, spend the night, go out to the restaurants in Carrollton, go out on The Square, enjoy this west Georgia area and then come back on Saturday and have a good round of golf in the afternoon," Hitzeman said. "That's one thing that's been a huge get for this tournament moving forward. We can extend the radius of who comes to this tournament in mileage if we have a weekend tournament."
As for his own squad, the Trojans are coming off a fifth-place finish in Class AAAAA last season, but they lost a lot of firepower to graduation. But rather than rebuild this spring, Carrollton has reloaded with a strong influx of freshmen — having three in the starting lineup at times led by Jacob Shadrix and Luke Pezold — behind a steady group of upperclassmen that includes junior Mario Perezcassar III and seniors Cole Fontenot, Dalton Benefield and Cole Zachmeyer.
Hitzeman stressed how the leadership of Fontenot has been one of the key bright spots this season.
"Clay's been with us for a long time in the program. He is now really committed to his game and to learning how to be a consistent producer," Hitzeman said. "He's counting for us and he wants to. When he doesn't play well, he gets down on himself and he wants to make sure the other guys pick him up because he has already picked us up a lot this year. I'm proud of him as a senior."
In his final Trojan Invitational, Fontenot is looking forward to making a splash against the bevy of collegiate talent and giving his squad a shot at a top finish.
"Now that it's my senior year, I want to go out and give it the best I've got. We've been in a lot of tournaments leading up to this one and hopefully I can go out there this weekend and give it my best and leave it all out there on the course," Fontenot said.
Of course, the Trojan seniors want to perform well on their home course, but they also understand the significance of being able to host such an exclusive event.
"It's a privilege for us, No. 1, having this as our course to come out and play with every day. And then being able to have the challenges we do having some of the top-10 teams in the state, it's just a privilege for us," Fontenot said. "I'm thankful to be a part of it."
Likewise, Benefield is eager to see how his squad measures up against some of the best of the best before the stretch run of the season.
"I think it's good for us in preparing to make a run at our area tournament and state. We'll get some good competition this weekend and figure out what we need to do and work on for the area tournament," Benefield said.
And getting to face such a quality field on their home course makes it even more special for the Trojan seniors as their time representing Carrollton golf winds down.
"It feels really good to play here at home. It's our course and our home advantage. We know the course better than any other team, so we have the higher advantage and that should help us do better in the tournament," Zachmeyer said.
So now with months of preparation ready to unfold upon putting on this production, the 2018 Trojan Invitational has finally arrived.
"With the involvement from the club this year, both on the operations side as well as the membership side, I think we're going to put together the best Trojan Invitational that we've ever put on," Hitzeman said. "We've come to be known as one of the best, if not the best, high school tournaments in the state. I think we're definitely the most select tournament in the state. We run a true invitational."