It's an early December afternoon, but Jason Zahala is working on his golf game.

Despite temperatures in the low 40s and sheets of rain coming down, the St. Charles Preparatory School sophomore isn't concerned about the weather. In fact, he doesn't even need a jacket.

Zahala is safe from the elements in the newly opened Joey Castrodale Golf Center on the school's west campus.

"The first time I walked in there, I was surprised at how really nice it was," said Zahala, who was a varsity player for the Cardinals this fall. "I walked in, and I was afraid I was going to break something. Hitting (golf balls) indoors is a pretty weird thing."

The golf center, which opened Nov. 4, is one of a kind for a high-school program in the state. Louisville (Kentucky) St. Xavier has a similar golf center thanks in part to donations from alumnus Justin Thomas, who is currently fourth in the PGA Tour standings.

The St. Charles facility cost nearly $100,000, which came from donations and fundraising. It includes screens, projectors, indoor turf and two TrackMan 4 radar devices with the ability to measure distance, club angle and other swing statistics -- all in a room that is 55 feet long and 17 feet wide with a ceiling 11 feet high.

"This is significantly more realistic (than a video game)," said coach Brian Unk, who shares coaching duties at St. Charles with Tod Hecht. "It's way more accurate. It's what they use on the PGA Tour. When you watch golf on TV and you see the tracer line for where the ball goes, they are using a TrackMan behind the players.

"To me, it's the top-of-the-line technology. It's basically a radar. It's called a launch monitor. Typically, you put the ball down, pick the target anywhere you want, tell it what club you are using, hit the ball and go from there."

Building the facility

Unk was watching his players compete in the Division I district tournament at Apple Valley in October 2016 when athletics director Dave Lawler approached him. He figured Lawler would ask about scores or some other tournament-related information, but that wasn't the case.

"Dave came up and told me that Mr. (James) Lower, the (St. Charles) principal, said that they were going to build an athletic facility with a gym and he would leave room for an indoor golf center," Unk said. "That was October 2016. Fast forward to having meetings about the building. We knew there was a going to be a gym, a robotics area, a mentoring center and they left an area in the architectural plans for an indoor golf facility. They said if we raised the money for what we needed, we could do whatever we wanted with it."

Unk then spoke with Zahala's father, Dave Zahala, who works in the construction field, about what it would take to complete the project.

"We decided to go out and look at what the colleges were doing, so we went to Kent State and then went over and looked at what they were doing at Ohio State," Dave Zahala said. "We were able to go online and get some ideas. TrackMan played a nice role in helping us on the layout and the material selection. The Range up in Dublin helped us figure out how things should come together. At that point, we had what we needed and went from there.

"The fundraising side took about four or five months and then the construction side from the design side to the time the golf center was open took about the better part of 90 to 120 days. Nine months from concept to completion, and it has exceeded everyone's expectations."

The TrackMan 4 technology originally was used by the military before it was applied to figuring out the trajectory of golf balls.

"The original technology was for tracking missiles years ago and they have fine-tuned that for tracking golf balls," Unk said. "They use a similar technology in baseball for the homer derby and how hard the ball is hit.

"The TrackMan has two radars in it: one that tracks the club that gives you club speed, attack angle path, face and direction, and another one that tracks the ball. You can use it both indoors and outdoors. Some guys are looking for just how far they hit it with each club, which is probably most beneficial to the average golfer. They think they hit their 8-iron 150 yards, but they really hit it 130. It doesn't lie. It's very accurate at plus or minus a yard over 400 yards."

Golf center dedication

The golf center was named in honor of Joey Castrodale, who died in 2016 before entering his eighth-grade year at St. Paul in Westerville.

As a seventh-grader, Joey played on the middle-school team that won the diocesan golf tournament.

His father, Mike Castrodale, was overwhelmed by the facility during the ribbon-cutting and blessing ceremonies Dec. 15.

"I was blown away when I saw it, and seeing (the plaque with) Joey's silhouette up there on the wall meant so much," said Mike Castrodale, whose son, Tony, is a 2017 graduate of St. Charles. "The facility is top notch. It's amazing."

Dave Zahala knew the Castrodale family through his son Jason's relationship with Joey.

"What's kind of special for me is that my son was best friends with Joey, who also would have been a sophomore right now," Dave Zahala said. "Joey would have been right there with these boys in terms of score and performance. That's his image on the wall, so it's like he's there with his buddies. He was a key part of that group."

Unk said St. Paul has been a big part of the St. Charles golf program, a central Ohio power that won Division I state titles in 2009 and 2010.

"Joey went to St. Paul, and we have like eight or nine kids from St. Paul currently on the team," Unk said. "I gave Joey a few lessons when he was young. He was a great kid from a great family."

Reaping the benefits

The equipment would have no purpose if the players didn't reap rewards from the facility.

Sophomore Evan Yakubov already has seen positives.

"I was so impressed when I saw it," he said. "I heard how hard everyone was working on it, but when I walked in there, I was blown away. It's awesome in here.

"A big part of it is just being able to practice during the winter. In past years, you would take some time off and you'd be a little rusty. Now you can keep going and keep getting better throughout the year."

Dave Zahala said his son's game already is ahead of where it was last season.

"Jason has gotten more practice in since the end of golf season than he did in all of the offseason last year," he said. "From the end (of golf season) until the weather breaks in March, you usually don't get a lot done. We'll see the difference in March."

Jason wholeheartedly agreed.

"It helps massively," he said. "There are not any courses open, so you just have to hit balls indoors. This is indoors, but the TrackMan helps you so much.

"The tracking gives us all of the numbers we need. If something's off with your swing, you can see the club path might be off or you could be hitting too deep or too shallow. It gives you all of the information you can use to make your swing better."

Castrodale, who was the primary donor for the project, is happy that he could help fund the futures of his son's golfing buddies.

"In Ohio, we don't get the same opportunities that some of the southern schools get," said Castrodale, who is president of Franklin Computer Services Group and an assistant coach with the Cardinals. "It will be a launch pad that through November, December, January, February and March, we can have the kids work out here instead of in all of the muck that we have after the snow and all that."

Other coaches asked during the building process if they could pay to use the facility, but Unk said there is "nothing in the works right now for that." However, he said there might be opportunities for alumni or other guests to use it in the future.

While the technology should help Unk's golfers fine-tune their skills, he thinks the best part of the facility might end up being the camaraderie built between teammates.

"One of the challenges is getting everyone together and on the same page," he said. "Being together as a team is a big thing for us. We draw kids from all over the area, whereas other schools are in their own district and practice at their own club. We don't have a home course, so to be able to come here is a big thing for us. We didn't have a place we call home to practice until now."

shennen@thisweeknews.com

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