Small frame, big game


People don't often look up to 5-foot-3-inch Ryan Baeza.

That is, until they see the Virgin Valley sophomore's 300-yard tee shot. Or learn that he has three career holes-in-one.

Baeza, a plus-one golfer and the Bulldogs' top returner, finished fourth at last year's Class 3A boys state championship as a freshman. With defending state champion Yuki Kato having moved to 4A and last year's runner-up, Vinnie Arrighi of Yerington, graduated, the Bulldogs hope this is Baeza's year. In fact, his sister, senior Felisha Baeza, already has put the Baeza name on a trophy by winning the individual state title in the fall.

"If I don't get (a state championship), I'll never live it down," Ryan Baeza said jokingly. "She puts the ring up, and says, 'Oh, yeah, there it is.' She kicks my butt. But it's fun; it's all good. I'm going to try to live up to that. That's my goal."

Those increased expectations don't hurt Baeza, Virgin Valley first-year coach Kirk Hafen said.

"When I talk to him, he just plays that off," Hafen said. "His dad harasses him a lot about that, too. I don't think he enjoys being compared to her at all. But I don't think he worries about trying to exceed the expectations that he's got."

Baeza averages 72 strokes and can consistently shoot par or better, including his 1-under 70 performance at a recent 3A Southern League meet at Falcon Ridge.

On a team with only three seniors, the Bulldogs have turned to Baeza for leadership.

"He'll help anybody any time he can," Hafen said. "He coaches the kids on the driving range, walks around them to help them out with their swings, with everything he's learned. But he doesn't try and jump in (and) tell the seniors what to do. He knows his place and just goes out and plays golf."

Playing golf is, after all, what the 16-year-old does best. A four-time Callaway Junior World Championships qualifier, Baeza placed sixth in an amateur tournament in June, and golf giant Ping is ready to offer him an equipment deal as soon as he reaches his junior year.

Age seems to be one of the few things that slows the barely-100-pound Baeza from competing with elite golfers.

"I was going to try for the Mesquite Amateur (this summer), but I'm not old enough; I was kind of mad about that," Baeza said. "There's a tournament at Falcon Ridge every Thursday, and these guys look at me like, 'What's he even doing here?'

"I just laugh; it doesn't bother me."

It was easy to laugh off the criticism when Baeza fired a hole-in-one on the eighth hole at Falcon Ridge during a Southern Nevada Junior Golf Association First Tee event.

Still, for someone trying to jump into golf's upper echelon, Baeza's hometown is a good place to do it.

"Mesquite is pretty much a golf community," he said. "Everybody down there is really nice about the golf program and everything."

Baeza has committed this summer to eight tournaments in Arizona and a junior amateur qualifier in Utah, along with competing for his fifth junior world championship berth. Even as he strives to get a college scholarship, Baeza keeps his focus on the PGA Tour.

"You've got to have some pretty good scores so that the colleges will look at you," said Baeza, who said he hopes to attend Arizona State or UNLV. "I'm looking at really good golf schools. I'm always going to try for (a PGA Tour career), but if it doesn't work out, I want to go into sports medicine."

For now, the pint-sized golfer is focused on one goal: helping the Bulldogs at the state tournament.

"We're obviously glad he's on the team," Hafen said. "He's got a lot of weight on his shoulders. He's going to carry this team, and he's only a sophomore. We'll see how that turns out in the end."

Contact reporter Sean Walker at swalker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0430.

 

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