Practices can be just as competitive as matches for the Ardrey Kell boys' golf team.
Coach Charlie Mikesell uses each player's nine-hole stroke average to seed the 13 golfers. Only six compete in each match, with four scores counting.
With the top eight golfers within six strokes of each other, every round counts.
"The competitive level has been raised this year," said Mikesell.
That increased level of competition has led the team to an undefeated 8-0 record this year going into its final regular-season match against Providence High today and a chance for the Knights to win the Southwestern 4A conference title for the first time.
The team finished 4-2 last year and qualified for its first Western Regional tournament by finishing second in the conference. Junior Andrew Klasing won the regional with an 8-under 64, but the rest of the team didn't play well enough to make it to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A state tournament.
"Last year we came really close to state," said Klasing, 17, who qualified as an individual for the state tournament and finished sixth. "This year we feel like we're 10 times better than last year."
Mikesell, 40, in his fifth season coaching at Ardrey Kell, said he has seen steady improvement.
"Every year we've gotten better," he said. "It's definitely a work in progress."
The work showed this year against Myers Park and South Mecklenburg, when the Knights beat those two teams for the first time in team history. The Knights beat the Mustangs at Myers Park Country Club 146-148, breaking a school scoring record.
"We just played phenomenal," said Mikesell.
The win "was a big deal for us," said senior Nick Brenner, 18. "To beat them at their home course is pretty cool."
A large part of Ardrey Kell's success comes from its depth.
"We have six true golfers," said junior Mitch Schneider, 17, the team's No. 1 golfer for the third straight year. In the past, he said, the team has had only three or four.
Those six golfers are competitive. Schneider's stroke average, 37.86, is only .02 better than No. 2 Klasing, and senior Michael O'Donnell, the No. 3 golfer, averages a 39. Freshman Hunter Oxford has been a key addition to the Knights this year, averaging 39.67 and holding on to the No. 4 spot.
"You really don't think a freshman can compete against these guys, but he's been in the top six since day one," said Mikesell.
The Knights also have managed to stay undefeated while Brenner, a four-year starter, has missed most of the season with an injured left wrist. Brenner had a 38.5 stroke average and likely would be one of the top three golfers. He expects to be able to play in the Providence match.
"It's unbelievable how other people have stepped up," said Mikesell.
One player who has stepped up is senior Alex Calott, who received a full scholarship to play tennis at UNC Charlotte but decided to play golf this year competitively for the first time. He's the team's No. 5 player, averaging 40.88. "He's really been a big team contributor this year," said Mikesell.
The top six is rounded out by junior Aaron Britt, with a 41.8 average.
Having three returning starters - Brenner, Klasing and Schneider - on the team has helped a lot this year, said Mikesell. "They're like coaches out on the golf course," he said.
The coach also credits the team's performance to practicing and playing matches at Ballantyne and Providence country clubs. "There are other teams in the conference that play on a different course every match," he said.
Mikesell also said first-year assistant coach Jon Neary has helped the team a lot this year.
The Knights are focused on making it to the state tournament at Pinehurst this year. The Ardrey Kell girls' team won the state tournament in the fall, and the boys don't want to be outdone.
"We want to be better than (the girls) are," said Schneider. "They're great ... we just really want to beat them."
Mikesell said a state championship would show how far the program has come in five years. He wants to win not only for the current players but for past players like four-year starter Mark Pak and three-year starters Michael Harris and Hunter Smith.
Mikesell also wants to see proof of the team's success in the gym rafters. "My motivation is to hang up a banner for these guys," said Mikesell.