Southern Arizona boys high school golf may be close to adding another school to its top tier.
Canyon del Oro, Ironwood Ridge, Salpointe Catholic and Sabino have typically been the area's powerhouses, but Cienega is undefeated heading into today's start of the two-day, 27-hole Santa Rita Invitational at Silverbell Golf Course.
"It's just been great chemistry between this group of guys," said Bobcats coach Tim Nichols of his squad, which took down Ironwood Ridge earlier this season. "These guys are bustin' out numbers now and I think we're going to compete pretty well."
Senior Tanner Doughty said he's looking forward to measuring where Cienega stands among the top teams in Tucson.
"I'm excited to get our name out there and get a good reputation," Doughty said. "We knew we were going to be good going into the season, now we're trying to prove it."
Here's a look at three reasons for the Bobcats' turnaround on the course this season:
The start of a JV program
Nichols knew that Cienega had the talent to compete, but it was forced to cut players with potential because of limits on roster sizes - stunting the Bobcats' growth from year to year.
So Nichols created a junior varsity team four years ago as a way to keep those players around on a daily basis without clogging up the varsity roster, something that's helped Cienega reload instead of rebuild over the past few years.
This year's senior class was part of the first group to play JV golf at Cienega.
"Two of seniors right now are guys that started on JV," Nichols said. "We were losing people, and they were just really good kids. But they were athletes that could play golf, and here you go - these guys are playing."
Robert Swanson, a senior on the team, said playing his first year on JV helped set up a successful run on varsity the next three years.
"That was a great experience, getting used to what Cienega golf was all about as a freshman," Swanson said. "I'd just watch the varsity guys and learn what playing high school golf is like."
Nichols said the combination of assistant coach Rod Carrier and swing coach Kene Bensel are like a "two-headed monster" of coaching. While Bensel isn't on staff, nearly every player on the roster works with him individually and Nichols said he's often around practice.
Nichols brought Bensel to the team's year-end banquet after last season, where he and the players hit it off. Both Bensel and Carrier bring different elements and strength to coaching, making Cienega a better-rounded team.
"Carrier is more mental and Bensel is more physical," Swanson said. "I remember earlier this year I snapped a driver shaft, and Carrier was there the next day with one. It's things like that that are great."
Doughty said that having Bensel around as an extra set of eyes has made a big difference in his game.
"He's just a really easy guy to talk to and learn from," Doughty said.
The addition of a JV program has turned the offseason into a time that's nearly as competitive as the regular season. Nichols said that now, instead of ending the season and not expecting much until the next season starts in August, offseason play has become a regular part of Cienega's program.
"That's helped a lot with not being nervous and stuff like that," junior David Rauer said.