B1G Opportunities Ahead For Toppers' Eickhoff

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Since he was eight-years-old, the goal for Alex Eickhoff has always been to "go big." On Wednesday, Nov. 13, the Hillsboro High School senior made good on that goal, going "B1G," as in the Big Ten Conference, as he signed his national letter of intent to play golf for the University of Minnesota.

" It means the world to me. This has been a dream of mine since day one," Alex said after signing to become a Golden Gopher. "I'm excited for something new. It's a new chapter in my life and I'm ready to move on and begin something else."

This next chapter is rarefied air for Hillsboro athletes, with just a handful having played a sport at the Division I level. Fortunately, Alex had a pretty good mentor on that path.

"It's something I did, but nowhere near the level that he's going to be able to achieve," said Jeff Eickhoff, Alex's father and high school coach, who played Division I golf for Jacksonville University in the late 90s. "He's worked hard and we've been able to provide the tools that got him there. With all of that combined, it's been a long time coming to say that we have someone playing in the Big Ten here.

Alex's list of accomplishments is longer than the wingspan of the lanky right-hander. Earlier this year, he became the first Hillsboro boys golfer to medal four times at the IHSA State Golf Tournament, adding a career best fifth place finish to the sixth he got as a junior, the eighth he took as a sophomore and the seventh he placed as a freshman.

Part of a talented group of seniors who pushed each other to be better, Alex helped Hillsboro add two state trophies (a second in 2017 and a third in 2018) to the Topper trophy case and a number of others from tournaments over the last four years.

But through all of the tournaments through his high school and junior golf career, which took him all over the country, the pull of the central part of the United States never waned.

"He's played a lot, all over the place, but there is something about Midwestern values that you can't quite get away from," Jeff said. "We have had some nice visits, but we never heard him say "this feels right," until after Minnesota. To hear him say that meant everything. It really came down to his comfort and knowing when it's right."

Recently, Alex made the trip back up to Minnesota with his father and mother, Angie, which solidified his decision even more.

"I already feel like I'm part of the team," said Alex, who said that the coaching staff and facilities were the main factor in his decision. "I fit in immediately. I could just be myself. They're a family and it's truly special to be a part of. I can't wait for next year."

The coaching staff includes first-year head coach Justin Smith, who took over in June after serving as the associate head coach the last two seasons and an assistant coach since 2014. Since Smith was added to the coaching staff at his alma mater, Minnesota has earned a top-three finish at the Big Ten Championships, four PING All-Region honorees, three NCAA Regional participants and a pair of All-Big Ten selections.

"We felt solid that he was going to be there for Alex's tenure at least," said Jeff, who added the coaching stability was another check in the Gophers' favor. "We interviewed with so many others who were losing assistants or on the coaching carousel."

The team is currently ranked 55th by Golfstat, up from 100th, and junior Angus Flanagan captured individual honors at the Big Ten Championships last year as a sophomore, helping the Gophers to a ninth place finish in the 14-team field. 

They also have a new state-of-the-art indoor/outdoor training center, the $1.5 million John W. Mooty Golf Facility, which features heated indoor hitting bays, as well as locker rooms, coaching staff offices, an athletes lounge and the program's hall of fame area.

And it's not just golf. Elsewhere on campus, Minnesota's volleyball team is 19-3 and ranked fifth in the nation, while their football team is one of just a handful of unbeaten teams left at 9-0 and is currently seventh after beating then-unbeaten Penn State on Saturday, a game Alex got to attend with the team.

"Just the attitude of the school toward athletics is infectious. Meeting with the coaches, it's all about what kind of experience can they give the students," Jeff said. "In addition to just playing their best golf, they're getting them ready for what's next in their lives, whatever it might be. It's a fully encompassing experience that they're wanting to offer. He gets to have a great education and gets to be part of a top notch athletic program."

While the future is exciting for Alex, the move north won't be without its challenges.

"I'm going to miss our golf team for sure. I'm going to think of them every day when in Minnesota playing for a new team," he said about what he'll miss most about his high school experience. "It's going to be a hard transition, but I'll always be thinking about them."

As hard as that transition may be, there is no reason to think that Alex won't be able to handle it. After all, he's used to "big" expectations.

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