In fewer than six months, Keaton Simpson killed his dreams of competing at the state golf championship.
During the spring of 2017, the Seymour High School junior led the Owls on the links throughout the entire season.
His success wasn’t to anyone’s surprise, as Simpson had established his name in the youth golf scene years before playing on the varsity team.
On top of individual accomplishments with the Indiana Golf Junior Tour, Simpson recorded numerous medalist finishes over his freshman and sophomore seasons.
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While he picked up a handful of wins over those two years, he didn’t make it past the regional his freshman year and failed to get out of sectional as a sophomore.
Everything lined up for a breakthrough season for Simpson, who had all of the tools in his repertoire to compete at the highest level.
On May 16, 2017, just four days away from the Hoosier Hills Conference Tournament in Jeffersonville, Simpson played his last match for SHS.
He violated the athletic department’s code of conduct and was put on probation from the team, cutting his season short before a shot at the postseason.
The infraction put Simpson on thin ice with his athletic eligibility with one more strike shutting down his high school golfing career forever.
In the summer going into his senior year, Simpson won his age group on the Howard Bailey Junior Golf Tour at Swan Lake Resort in Plymouth. He shot a cool 2-over-par (71-75) on 36 holes, which included one eagle, seven birdies, 18 pars, nine bogeys and one double bogey.
At the top of his game, Simpson primed himself for a comeback his senior year.
However, after the summer and fall months rolled by, an off-campus incident ended his high school career not two months before the start of the 2018 season.
While his teammates finished out their careers, Simpson shifted his attention to working while finishing up high school, spending almost an entire year way from competitive golf.
Despite not playing on his team, SHS head boys golf coach Jim Hoffman stayed in close contact with Simpson.
One day, while at one of his daughter’s volleyball matches, Hoffman received a call that changed Simpson’s life.
Simpson’s personal issues had deterred many of his college suitors, but John A. Logan College head coach Tom Ferris wasn’t giving up on the teen.
“We had some contact early on with (Ferris), but it kind of dwindled after everything that happened,” Hoffman said. “He reached out to me at the beginning of last summer and asked where Keaton was at and what the whole story was. I gave it to him from his freshman year on unfiltered. I told him I thought he had matured and had the opportunity to be really good if someone took the chance. He said he’s been through that, and he wasn’t afraid of it.”
Ferris took the chance on Simpson, who agreed to join the Volunteers’ program.
“I was playing in league one night and coach Hoffman texted me telling me that this coach (Ferris) wanted to talk to me,” Simpson said. “I said ‘OK, let’s see where it goes.’ I got in contact, and a couple days later, (Ferris) came here all the way from Illinois to meet me and sign me.”
John A. Logan College is a junior college in Carterville, Illinois.
Ferris, who has headed the program since 2000, has developed the Volunteers’ program into one of the most respected in the country.
The Volunteers are two-time National Junior College Athletic Association national champions (2009 and 2011) and were second in 2010 and third in 2012. Two individuals have claimed national medalist honors with the Volunteers, and the program has made it to the national championships 19 times.
In 2017, Ferris was inducted into the the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Hall of Fame.
“We do take chances on people. That’s what we are a lot about,” Ferris said. “I knew he had the golf credentials. I just didn’t know if he had the dedication and the other things you need. I made the decision to bring him on board, and he hasn’t been a disappointment. He is a very disciplined young man now. He took care of his business, did what he was supposed to do and did well in school.
“I think the atmosphere and what we do, we’re a pretty disciplined program. Everything is pretty laid out as to what I want the players to do and how they are to act. I think it fit right into something he needed, and he reacted very well.”
On their schedule, the Volunteers play against a range of competition, including NCAA Division I golf teams. They travel all across the country playing in tournaments, including Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee.
In his freshman year with the Volunteers, Simpson made his presence felt, playing in the top three for the team all season. He said he averaged 74 to 75 strokes and would play in multi-day tournaments against some of the top competition in the country.
“There were some tournaments where you had to go -13 or -14 in two or three days to win,” Simpson said. “It’s a lot different than high school where you play nine-hole matches or 18 holes on the weekend. We do 36 holes in one day and then 18 on the next and 18 after that.”
In the final phase of the season, the team qualified for the NJCAA Division I Men’s Golf Championship at Duran Golf Club in Melbourne, Florida.
At the national championship, Simpson led the team in scoring with a 302 (76-79-73-74). The team, which featured seven freshmen and one sophomore, finished 20th of 24 teams at the tournament.
“This past year was great. It was definitely a learning experience,” Simpson said. “The team that we have, we’re very capable of doing great things this year as long as we keep doing what we are doing. There’s a lot of pressure. It’s not a huge stage or platform, but you want to do well. It’s a steppingstone where I want to be and where the team wants to be. As long as we keep working hard and the school work, as well, we will be pretty successful this year.”
Simpson can’t comment on the next steps after his final season at John A. Logan, but there are several programs interested in acquiring him.
“He’s definitely a (NCAA) Division I-type talent,” Ferris said. “We play three or four tournaments that are four-year Division I tournaments. He played solid in those. If he continues to improve, he is a Division I player.”
The team also will rely on Simpson in a new way this coming school year.
“He was named our captain for this coming year, and we expect him to lead the team,” Ferris said. “He wasn’t the No. 1 golfer on our team, but he was in the top three through the tournaments he played. We’re expecting good things out of him.”
While Simpson said his short game has improved, Hoffman believes Simpson’s greatest growth has been between his ears.
“Keaton has done a really good job of growing up,” Hoffman said. “That’s why (coaches) do this and what makes it worthwhile. You get to see kids come back and mature. A lot of times, we give up on kids. We turn a blind eye to them. We can’t do that to any of our kids. We need to keep looking for the best in them. If they make a mistake, we need to keep working with them.
“(Simpson) is a prime example of not giving up on a kid. That’s what we are here to do. Winning games and matches is great, but making kids better for the future is the key.”
On Friday, Simpson was on the driving range at Shadowood Golf Course in Seymour while Hoffman and assistant coach Brian Tidd worked with the high school girls team.
Simpson, 20, said he feels like he’s getting a second chance thanks to Ferris and John A. Logan and is thankful for everything that happened to him during the 2018-19 year.
“I didn’t even have plans of going to college at all to play,” Simpson said. “I was just going to try and see where it took me. God has blessed me with amazing things this past year, and I think he’s going to continue to do so as I just keep working hard. I’ve gone through a rough road these past couple years. This past year opened my eyes. I’m trying to be the best I can be.”