How high school golf filled in for Friday Night Lights

Nick Ferrence and Neil LaRochelle, best friends and members of the St. Dominic Academy golf team.

Ferrence beat LaRochelle.

Repeat, Nick Ferrence, who plays golf casually over the summer, beat Neil LaRochelle, the returning conference champion and Maine Class C runner-up, in their first match of the season.

“I wasn’t gonna let that happen again,” LaRochelle says, as Ferrence snickers in the background. “Since then, I don’t think he’s beat me in a match.”

“I thought I had a good chance of beating him again,” Ferrence says. “And then he just smoked me in every other match.”

Golf, for a high school quarterback in a small town, was beginning to feel a whole lot like football.

Ferrence, a shade over 5-8, with ashy blond hair and blue eyes, is your typical teenager. In the summer, he does landscaping and mows lawns for extra cash. His favorite football player is Russell Wilson; both because he plays for his favorite team (the Seattle Seahawks), and because of their similar build — which Ferrence uses as extra motivation as an undersized quarterback himself. His team, the Lisbon High School Tigers, are the reigning Class D state champions, and Ferrence, a junior, was vying to be the starting QB.

In early September, Maine canceled his season due to the coronavirus. 

So LaRochelle, Ferrence’s best friend, proposed an idea.

Come play golf.

“You’ve got to keep your composure no matter what. Even if you’re playing horrible,” Ferrence said of golf and football. “You’ve got to keep your head up and pick your teammates up. Football’s kind of like that — the quarterbacks are always the leader on the team. So for golf, you kind of have to lead too.”

* * *

Giving up football for golf wouldn’t be easy for Ferrence. No passes to streaking wide receivers down the sidelines. No cheering fans or smell of fresh-cooked popcorn wafting its way down from the bleachers. No Lisbon High, either. Ferrence, along with LaRochelle, attends Lisbon, but through a co-op program, he would play golf for St. Dominic Academy. Just him, a club and a ball.

And his best friend.

LaRochelle and Ferrence have always been friends; they grew up three doors down from each other in Lisbon. LaRochelle and Ferrence’s families have been close even longer. Now, on St. Dom’s, they played in Auburn, which rests in the south-central part of Maine. Auburn is picturesque and classically American; the Androscoggin River intersects the city’s long, sloping body, and in the fall, its golden and burgundy trees envelop the city’s 65 square miles. 

The St. Dominic Academy golf team. From left, coach Chris Whitney, Nick Ferrence, Garret Kendall, Emma Skolfield, Miles Frenette and Neil LaRochelle.

Ferrence exchanged his pads for a putter, and his hometown for its neighbor.

`[LaRochelle] had been trying to talk me into [joining the team] for a couple years now,” Ferrence said. “And I’ve never really wanted to — I’ve always been 100 percent in on football. And then when I heard that I had the opportunity to play [golf] because football is getting canceled, I was all in.”

Ferrence was not alone this year. All across the nation, high school fall athletes whose seasons have been stripped from them have migrated to the golf course. In Limon, Colo., a group of football players even resurrected their school’s long-shuttered boys golf team.

“It says a lot about the type of kids that play interscholastic athletics,” said Chris Boone, the golf liaison for the National Federation of State High School Associations. “They want to compete at the high school level. They want to compete for their school and their school name. So they’re finding ways to do that.”

Chris Whitney, St. Dom’s coach, once switched sports, too. From golf to football.

As a good coach would, Whitney helped Ferrence play football – on the golf team.

“When I was in high school, I played golf, and I was a golfer. But in middle school, there’s no middle school golf. So I played middle school football. And then I had to make that choice. But then I just missed the team sport aspect of it,” Whitney said. “So my senior year, I actually switched and went and played football, and he’s just doing the opposite.“

“So I told him, ‘Listen, my dad coached college football, he’s coached high school football, I grew up playing football, I’m still around it. In practice, we can go over techniques and blocking routes and drop backs and throwing and you can still play golf, and we can talk football at the same time.”

* * *

Recruiting Ferrence was more than just having his best friend with him on the team. LaRochelle knew Ferrence was good — they had played golf regularly over the summer together — and having him meant St. Dom’s had a better shot at winning state.

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“It’s [LaRochelle’s] senior year finally, he’s been with us for three years now, and he’s just wanted to get that championship. We’ve been the runner-up. We’ve been third. We’ve won the conference championship, but he hasn’t been able to get that team state championship,” said Whitney. “And he’s just an unbelievable kid where he’d much rather win the team state championship than the individual state championship.” 

St. Dom’s season, ultimately, was a success; the Saints finished second at the Class C state tournament. LaRochelle finished second, and Ferrence finished seven strokes behind him. 

LaRochelle, a senior, said he’s angling toward trying to play golf competitively in college next year. Ferrence, meanwhile, is still undecided about whether his future includes golf or football. Boone, the golf liaison for the National Federation of State High School Associations, said most of these new golfers will likely return to the gridiron.

“I’m gonna see what happens with Covid right now and see what happens next year. … [We don’t know] what football is going to be like [or] if we’re gonna even have a season. …,” Ferrence said. ”So I’m just gonna see what happens first.”

Nick Ferrence is the high school quarterback

Auburn is the small town.

The high school quarterback in the small town is the thing

It just so turned out that it wasn’t the only thing.

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