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Pieper Built Monmouth’s Golf Dynasty
by Barry McNamara
From 1985 to 1995, the dominant team in Illinois high school boys golf – perhaps all of high school golf – was the Monmouth Zippers.
The west central Illinois school won eight Class A championships in an 11-season span, including six straight titles from 1985-90, and Zipper golfers captured six state medalist honors from 1986-94. Those five first-place finishers included brothers Mike Briggs and Randy Briggs, one of four sets of siblings who were integral parts of the championship teams.
The Odendahls (Carl and Mark) and the Van Kirks (Mike and Steve) were key players, and so were the largest set of brothers, the Pieper boys (Scott, Erik and Aaron), sons of golf coach Bill Pieper, who led Monmouth to seven of its eight championships.
A beloved biology teacher, known for his semester-opening insect collection assignment and his comedic style in the classroom, Pieper also struck gold as a coach.
“Coach Pieper was very instrumental in my development as a player and as a person,” said Mel Blasi, a Zipper golfer who succeeded Pieper as coach in 1995. “His integrity was without reproach. He instilled in each of his players a confidence that they could do anything with him as their coach.”
Pieper wasn’t the team’s “swing doctor” – that honor belonged to Tim Sweborg, a nationally-recognized junior golf instructor. The head professional at the Zippers’ home course, Gibson Woods, Sweborg started Monmouth’s vital feeder program, the Future Golfers Association (FGA).
Rather, Pieper had a knack for promoting golf, and young athletes bought in. Monmouth’s rise to golfing dynasty was, he said, “a real combination of factors. I like to call it a web of success.”
A key part of that web was access to the challenging, tree-lined Gibson Woods, not only for fall practice, but for rounds all summer long. Pieper proposed a trade-off to the Monmouth Park Board – low-cost access for aspiring players, in exchange for revenue he would bring in from tournaments. His first Monmouth Invitational in 1977 brought in seven teams, but it quickly grew in size and stature, eventually featuring 22 schools (with others on a waiting list) and earning the nickname “Little State.”
“The willingness of Gibson Woods to adopt us was very important,” said Pieper. “The members welcomed us with open arms. And we had one of the best pros in the state in Tim.”
While Sweborg taught mechanics, Pieper made sure his players knew golfing etiquette and rules. They also gave back to youth golf, serving as counselors for Monmouth’s summer FGA camp, which grew to more than 100 third- through eighth-graders.
“That’s what I call planting the seed,” said Pieper. “I wanted to see them want to play golf, and they did.”
The golf team became the place to be at Monmouth.
“We played in some summer tournaments that took us out of town, but if we were home, we pretty much played at Gibson Woods every day,” said Randy Briggs, who is now there every day as Sweborg’s successor, a position he assumed in 2006. “I remember some days being here from 8 in the morning until dark. There were several days I played 72 holes, 90 holes.”
“Other coaches would comment to me, ‘You have athletes who play golf,’” said Pieper, recalling that a handful of his golfers played quarterback for their junior high football teams. “I was blessed by kids who could really play. I would hear kids from other teams come off their bus, and if it was raining, they’d say, ‘Aw, do we have to play?’ My kids would say, ‘We’re not going to cancel, are we?’”
“Coach Pieper scheduled tough competition and promoted the game to young players, but by far his most important contribution was in leadership itself,” said Blasi. “If you played for Coach Pieper, you couldn’t help but be a champion.”
In the Zippers’ first championship season in 1985, Carl Odendahl placed seventh, just two shots behind the individual medalist and one stroke behind teammate Buck McBride as Monmouth secured a 17-stroke victory. The 1986 season was more of the same, as Odendahl again captured top 10 honors and the Zippers won by 16 strokes. The difference was that Mike Briggs became the program’s first individual champion.
The 1987 and 1988 teams took their dominant play to another level, officially establishing Monmouth as a golf dynasty. The younger Briggs brother, Randy, won medalist honors in ’87 and McBride again placed in the top 10 as the Zippers won by a staggering 38 strokes.
A four-peat followed in ’88, with Tad Bednar and Randy Briggs keying a 24-stroke victory with a 1-2 finish atop the leaderboard. That type of competition within the team went on all season long, season after season, as some of their most competitive rounds came in practice, with several talented players vying for the coveted final spot or two on the six-man varsity squad.
“We were taking an average score in the 70s for our sixth man,” said Pieper, who reported Monmouth’s record team score was 292, an average of 73 per player. “That really helped our practices. It was very competitive, and every round counted, so they weren’t just out there slapping a ball around.”
The Zippers frequently hovered around the 300 mark, and the JV – Monmouth’s Nos. 7-12 golfers – would often shoot around 320. Playing in the pressure environment of the state meet – and often in less than ideal October weather – Monmouth’s 36-hole record in the final was 621, set by the 1987 champions and equaled three years later.
Randy Briggs won his second individual title in 1989 as the Zippers had their biggest scare during their six-year run, a one-stroke victory over Kankakee (Bishop McNamara). All three Pieper brothers played on that squad, which tied Carmi’s state record of five straight golf titles.
“After our third championship, we started thinking about Carmi’s record,” said Pieper. “We had a good rivalry with them, because we saw them at state.”
The tie wouldn’t last long. In 1990, Mark Odendahl topped the Monmouth leaderboard, placing second as the Zippers won by five strokes for their record sixth straight state title. Erik Pieper chipped in a sixth-place finish.
“I got a nice note after that from Carmi’s coach,” said Pieper, who fondly recalled the “fraternity of coaches” of which he was a part. “He wrote, ‘Our record is broken, but you’ve earned every bit of it.’”
“I always thought it would’ve been interesting for us to play the Class AA state champions,” said Randy Briggs. “We were pretty good.”
Individually, both Briggs brothers played – and defeated – the Class AA medalist to qualify for the annual National High School Athletic Coaches Association event for state champions. Mike topped Ted Meyer in the match play event, while Randy bested Jamie Fairbanks after his second title.
The 1991-93 seasons did not bring a team championship, but Monmouth still made its presence felt at state. The team placed seventh, fourth and second, respectively, and Aaron Pieper placed in the top 10 in 1991. At the rain-shortened 1993 event, Matt Livingston grabbed a share of state medalist honors, and freshman Adam Goldie announced his state presence with a hole-in-one at Prairie Vista. Goldie would go on to become the only Zipper to post four consecutive top-15 finishes at state.
In 1994, Monmouth was back atop both leaderboards, with Andrew Johnson’s 144 keying an 18-stroke victory in Pieper’s final season as head coach. But Pieper didn’t leave the cupboard bare. Coached by Blasi, who had placed in the top 10 in Class A in 1980, the 1995 squad captured Monmouth’s eighth state title, a four-stroke win, with Goldie placing second individually.
Blasi, who is now the head golf coach at Western Illinois University, worked as a youth at Gibson Woods under superintendent Gary Doetsch, who he credited for making the course “a unique and special place ... one of the area’s top golf venues.”
Although the 1996 season did not yield a title, Goldie tied for runner-up as the Zippers placed fourth.
The 1996 season capped an amazing run of 13 straight top-seven team finishes at state (the 1984 team had placed second to Olympic Conference rival Aledo). Monmouth won both its regional and sectional titles in each of those 13 seasons. At least one Zipper placed in the top 10 in Class A for 11 of 12 seasons from 1985-96.
Randy Briggs was in the six-man state squad all four years, a feat matched by Cardie Carnes. Bednar, Carl Odendahl and Mike Van Kirk played on three apiece. Golfers who were on two title teams included Mike Briggs, Goldie, McBride, Scott McClintock, Steve Van Kirk and all three Pieper boys.
Technically, Pieper coached one other state champion, Union High School’s Todd Hamilton, who won the 1981 and 1982 Class A state meets. A one-man team, Hamilton traveled with the Zippers to meets, and Pieper was paid an annual stipend of $1 to be his coach. In 2004, Hamilton won another big tournament – the British Open.
“When Todd joined Gibson Woods prior to his junior year of high school, everything changed about expectations,” said Blasi, Hamilton’s childhood friend. “Todd was already a well-known national competitor in junior golf and his experience motivated everyone to follow.”
“Todd was very willing to play with us when we were young kids, and you just learn so much from being able to play with someone like that,” said Randy Briggs. “And my brother, too. He was three years older than me, and when that 1984 team took second, you knew we were close to winning it all.”
“It was just really a golden time,” concluded Pieper, who retired from full-time teaching in 2000 and still lives in Monmouth. “I never looked at golf as a minor sport. I think we showed it’s a major sport.”