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franklin county times

Red Bay senior signs with Meridian

J.R. Tidwell/FCT Austin Sparks, a senior at Red Bay High School, signed with Meridian Community College in Meridian, Miss., to play golf. Pictured from left to right are mother Regina Sparks, Austin Sparks and Red Bay head golf coach Johnny Cleveland.

RED BAY — When it comes to playing golf for Red Bay senior Austin Sparks, it is a “family thing.”

Sparks has four cousins and an uncle that also play the sport, which led him to pick up the game as well.

Sparks said his uncle, Jimmy Patterson taught him “everything” about the game. He has also been taking lessons from Jason Vaughn in Florence to help improve his game.

“Golf is more mental than anything else,” Sparks said. “I just worry about getting better every day. You have to be good at more than one thing, and you never have an offseason.”

Not only did he pick it up, he has excelled at it in the high school level. Sparks placed third in the 1A/2A individual standings at the state golf tournament at Grand National in Auburn last week, but the accolades don’t stop there.

Sparks has five wins on the Northeast Mississippi Junior Tour and was Tour Champion in 2011.

He made the All-Sectional team four times from 2009-12, and he made the All-North half Sub-State team twice.

His performance during this season got him named to the 2012 All-State team.

Sparks was the medalist at the 2012 Sectional in Cullman, where he shot a 71, and runner-up at the North half Sub-State, where he shot a 65 at Becky Peirce Golf Course.

Along with the individual accolades Sparks has picked up over the last four years, he has several accomplishments that he shared with his Tiger teammates.

He helped lead Red Bay to three sectional titles, two runner-up titles at sub-state, two appearances at state and two fourth-place finishes at the state tournament.

The team finished the 2012 season with an impressive record of 48-8.

Sparks’ talents have led him to sign with Meridian Community College, a powerhouse in golf at the community college level.

“I think it’s great,” Red Bay head golf coach Johnny Cleveland said. “He has the full potential to do so, and [Meridian] is one of the best college teams in the area. He made a good choice.”

The school was ranked No. 1 during the entire 2011-12 season by golf stats and finished fourth at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championship.

The team boasts two individual national champions on the team, and the group has won 64 tournaments since 1996, seven of those coming in 2012.

With a track record like that, choosing to sign with Meridian was not a hard decision for Sparks. However, another reason for the decision can be traced back to the family ties with golf.

“I had two cousins (Curt and Tanner Sparks) play out there,” Sparks said. “They’ve been No. 1 throughout the 2011-12 season in NJCAA, and they just got back from the National Championship.”

Sparks is looking forward to going to Meridian Community College in the fall, but at three hours away, he will be travelling farther away than most of his classmates.

“It’s pretty exciting, but also disappointing to be the only on in this Red Bay class to be going out there,” he said.

While he might e the only member of the 2012 Red Bay class to travel to Meridian, he has no question about why he is making the journey.

“Competing at the collegiate level is what I’ve wanted to do since I started playing golf,” Sparks said, “and it’s the place to go for golf in community college.”

While seeing a child move off to college is a bittersweet experience for most parents, Austin’s mother knows what the change of location means for her son.

“I’m tickled for the opportunity he has to do something good,” Regina Sparks said.

Sparks may be enrolling at Meridian in the fall, but right now he has some others events to focus on.

He qualified to play at the Alabama Men’s State Amateur Championship at Kiva Dunes in Gulf Shores. He will also play in the Greystone Invitational in Birmingham.

In July he will be joining a Meridian Community College teammate at the Spirit of America Tournament in Decatur.

The road ahead may be busy and challenging, but given Sparks’ accomplishments in high school, he will do fine at the next level of competition.