Years before Ryan Wallen arrived in the prep ranks, coach Steve Barthlow used him as a teaching tool, illustrating to high school golfers what a desire to be the best looks like.
When Wallen was a middle schooler, Barthlow and his team would head to either Loomis Trail Golf Club or Semiahmoo Golf and Country Club from Blaine High once school let out. They'd reach the course around 3:20 p.m. Wallen would be working on his game. The Borderites would pack up and head home between 5:30 and 5:45 p.m. Wallen would still be honing his skills. And it was easy to get caught watching his smooth swing, said Barthlow.
The pattern continued as Wallen reached seventh and eighth grade.
"I would point out his work ethic to some of the high school kids," Barthlow said in a phone interview. "I said, 'If you want to be a good golfer and have a shot at college, you need to work a little harder.' They'd see this sixth or seventh grader working at his game. When someone loves a sport and is willing to practice..."
A player of Wallen's caliber typically develops.
Wallen has been selected The Bellingham Herald's All-Whatcom County Boys' Golf Player of the Year for the third consecutive season. He's put together four years of dominance, capping his senior season with his third career second-place state finish. He shot a two-day 147 during the Class 1A State Tournament at Lake Spanaway Golf Course. Wallen also won the Northwest Conference Tournament, district and tri-district tournament.
"I started off slow, maybe a little slower than all the other years, but I came back strong, and I found a way to have a good postseason, so that's huge for me," Wallen said.
Ever since Wallen fired a 68 three years ago during the first round of state, he's been Whatcom County golf's front runner. His individual trophy haul is vast, but this year wasn't all about him.
"Second as an individual was good, but third as a team was even bigger for me," Wallen said, "I was really happy for Devan (Boucher). It takes two people to win a team title, and I don't think he gets the props that he deserves."
Boucher exhibited tremendous improvement from last year, lowering his scoring average by six strokes, and his work paid off at state. He finished eighth, and combined with Wallen, the Borderites earned 77 team points - good enough to leave Spanaway with a third-place trophy. It was the first major team accomplishment during Wallen's career.
"Both kids went home with their parents after state," Barthlow explained. "I was by myself coming home and I got a text from Ryan saying thanks for everything coach and how proud he was of Devan and how great it was to bring home a team trophy. I really do believe it was more important to him than finishing second. He was really excited about that."
Wallen arguably had the skill to capture multiple state titles during his time at Blaine. He did win one his sophomore year, but constructing a career filled with unrivaled accomplishments was never his objective.
He, like most, simply wanted to make varsity his first year.
"I think it's a thousand times better than I expected," said Wallen of what he originally expected out of his time at Blaine. "People probably think I had these huge high hopes of having a great high school career, but really when I came out, I just pictured myself as an average high school golfer."
He quickly became far from ordinary. Wallen entered Washington Junior Golf Association events as a freshman and sophomore and as an upperclassman played in several more prestigious American Junior Golf Association tournaments. Colleges began taking notice.
With offers on the table from both Western Washington University and the University of Wyoming, Wallen chose Division I and will play for the Cowboys next fall.
"There's seven players on the team, and they're all great golfers," Wallen said. "Having a true team of golfers and playing in those big events, those AJGA's. It's like every tournament will be an AJGA or even bigger. The coach is really awesome, just playing at the next level is really awesome."
Improving year to year has been Wallen's central focus. His 73.7 shooting average was a stroke higher than last season's, but that doesn't mean he didn't mature as a golfer.
Strong driver and iron play has always been Wallen's signature. He committed this spring to improving course management and ball placement, he said. From Barthlow's perspective, though, one of Wallen's career top developments hasn't included his clubs; instead, it's been his maturity and mental strength.
"It's been awesome watching him as freshman to a senior, watching him develop his game and also growing into a fine young man, too," said the Blaine coach. "I can remember as a freshman he was a little bit off the wall, but by the end of his senior year he did a very good job of being a leader."
Barthlow told a story about Wallen's practice round at state, explaining how he joined a dad with his 10-year-old son who were playing ahead of him. Barthlow spoke glowingly of how Wallen treated the young golfer while praising his shots.
"It just really makes me feel good as a coach when I have a different coach from another school we don't usually play against come up to me and say, 'Hey, I really enjoyed seeing your young golfer play. He did an outstanding job encouraging all the players in his group,'" Barthlow said. "When you look at stuff like that, it puts a great name behind Blaine High School, the Blaine community and the Blaine golf program."
Wallen wanted to thank his family for their support during his career and also thanked Barthlow, who, Wallen joked, has taken on a hefty tab keeping his golfer fueled during tournaments.
Reach Andrew Lang at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 360-756-2862.
Reach ANDREW LANG at email@example.com or call ext. 862.