Roll Maroon Tide
Fresh off its first state title in a dozen years, the golf team at Galax, Va., has its sights set on a national tournament. It just needs a little help getting there
By Ryan French
Galax, Va., used to be at the epicenter of furniture manufacturing in the U.S. In the 1960s, there were six furniture factories in town, along with four textile plants. Business was good. Things are more challenging now. An industry that once employed thousands of workers offers far fewer. Today more than three-quarters of the kids in the Galax Community Schools qualify for free meals, nearly a quarter of the families live below the poverty line, and the median income is just above $39,000. The private country club closed when the furniture factories shut down; it’s now a nine-hole municipal course.
Most communities facing these challenges wouldn’t field a golf team, let alone a good one. Yet this year, the Galax Maroon Tide won their seventh Class 1A state championship, led by the coach’s son and a young man who continues to grieve after the recent death of his older sister. The team features kids from primarily blue-collar families. This is a story about a scrappy small town that refuses to give up and a team that just a few years ago didn’t even exist. Now they need our help getting to the PGA High School Golf National Invitational in Frisco, Texas.
This is a story about a community that, even amid its challenges, rallies around its sports teams. Galax is the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains and sits on the Virginia-North Carolina border, 60 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, N.C. Galax High School has only 370 students, but it is rich in a winning tradition. The school owns 25 state titles in sports and numerous others in drama and theater. “The school board, the community, and the staff at the schools believe very strongly that extracurricular activities are so important to a student’s success,” says Justin Iroler, the middle school principal and the father of one of the golf team members. Galax has a tradition that when a state championship is won, members of the fire and police departments meet the team at Interstate 221. They then escort the team through town, sirens blaring and lights flashing, and hundreds of people line the five-mile route to the school.
Like many sports at Galax, the golf team has a rich history, but this year the state title drought had reached a dozen years. Just a few years ago, the “team” had exactly one player. But Graham Laird, the general manager of the Blue Ridge Country Club, who has also been the Galax High golf coach for the last six seasons, refused to give up. He and middle school golf coach Aaron Horton worked to recruit players and to build the numbers back up. They did much more than that. They brought back the winning tradition.
Like many kids, Talan Gentry plays a lot of sports. It’s basketball season in Virginia, and the golf clubs are stowed away, aside for some indoor drills the team does. If you attend a Galax High basketball game this year, you will see the name Abigail written on Talan’s shoes. Her name will be embroidered on his golf bag as well. Abigail, Talan’s older sister, was killed in an ATV accident in December 2021. She had been married five weeks earlier and was pregnant with the couple’s first child. “It hit him so hard,” says Brad Gentry, the siblings’ father. Talan made golf his escape, and he has dedicated his play to the memory of his sister. “He loves basketball,” Brad says, “but golf is his life.” Talan, a junior, shot 79 at the district tournament and 67 at regionals. He fired a 74 at the state tournament to finish second, a shot behind teammate Grayden Laird.
Galax lost to just three teams the entire season, leading up to the district tournament. Two of those schools played three divisions ahead of the Maroon Tide, meaning they had a student enrollment more than three times the size of Galax. But playing as the favorite can be challenging.
After winning the district tournament by 27 strokes, Galax hit a speedbump at the regional event. The heavily favored Maroon Tide, led by Talen’s strong play, were tied with George Wythe. Six players from each team went out for the playoff, with the top four scores counting. George Wythe played the first playoff hole in a combined 1 over par. Galax advanced after posting four pars.
At the state tournament, Galax was again the favorite. The players felt the pressure, and on the range the day before the first round, you could sense it. The practice session was going poorly, and the frustration only grew. It got so bad that Laird told the players to stop practicing for 15 minutes. Some voiced their displeasure, but Laird insisted. He reminded the players they play their best when they have fun, and however the week unfolded, he and everyone in Galax would be proud of them.
Led by Grayden Laird, the coach’s son, Talan, Galax won the state title going away. And as they had done so many times before, members of the police and fire departments were waiting at the interstate to escort the team to the high school, the streets lined with proud residents.
By virtue of its state title, Galax qualified for the national tournament. It is set for July, at PGA Frisco outside of Dallas. The Maroon Tide needs help getting there. The Go Fund Me link is here.