PHS sophomore Luke Stennett returns as the Highlanders top golfer after winning the Division IV championship as a freshman last spring.
Portland High School golf is coming off a state championship last year and hopes to duplicate that performance this spring.
Head coach Joseph Santavenere is entering his 10th season coaching the Highlanders, leading them to four state titles during his tenure.
Last spring he guided a young group to a Division IV state championship, defeating runner-up Immaculate by eight strokes.
“I thought we’d be competitive but I didn’t know to what degree and the depth that we’d have,” Santavenere said of championship last June. “A lot of the kids we have from the top down worked really hard.”
Three of the team’s top four golfers from last season’s title team will be returning with an added offseason under their belts.
Sophomore Luke Stennett is back and better than ever after finishing first overall, shooting even-par to win the Division IV individual championships as a freshman.
Stennett said the team’s overall support allows him to succeed as an individual, adding, “Just being a part of this amazing team gives me the confidence to be me and play the best I can.”
Along with winning the state title, Stennett was also named the Shoreline Conference (SLC) Player of the Year.
“What I have seen so far is he is on another level than he was a year ago. I am expecting a really good year from him,” Santavenere said of Stennett.
Quinn Lapinski also flourished during his first season on the high school links, making first-team all-conference and finishing tied for 15th overall at the state tourney.
Sophomore Joseph Lamalfa, now a junior, tied for 17th at states.
Santavenere said both Lapinski and Lamalfa worked hard in the offseason and are shooting really well entering this spring.
The seasoned coach said he knew he was getting a strong group entering the program because he teaches at Brownstone Intermediate School in Portland.
He recalled having Stennett in his class in the fifth grade while the golfing prodigy was already competing in local tournaments.
This is a unique year for boys’ golf in the state. Many high school golf programs shifted to the fall this school-year when the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) gave the option for programs to compete in either the fall or spring.
Recently there has been discussion that the CIAC may want to move all of golf to the fall. It’s a notion that Santavenere opposes.
“In a small town like Portland we have multi-sport athletes and I don't want to put those kids in a position where they have to choose. We get a lot of soccer players and football players, and if we moved to the fall we would potentially lose those kids,” said Santavenere, who added he has seen the number of golfers nearly double since he took over the program. “We started out with 8 or 9 my first year and now we’re at 15 to 16 kids in the program.”
Athletes like high-profile twins Owen and Hannah Brunk, who are all-conference players in football and soccer respectively, would have to choose between golf and their respective fall sports.
Both Brunks are back for their senior year on the links, as is Eli Evison who just wrapped up an all-conference season on the basketball courts.
Santavenere said Evison joined the program just last year and now looks like a more complete golfer, adding, “He was pretty raw last year, but his ball striking has come a long way. He put in the work in the offseason.”
If golf were moved to the fall, Santavenere fears that he might lose some of these top-end talents.
“We have really good athletes. I encourage them to play as many sports as they can and I’m not one of those coaches that wants them to focus just on golf,” added Santavenere. “I think you’re better off when you’re well-rounded and working different muscles and doing different movements in the offseason,”
The Highlanders have a full slate of matches this year, including three straight at home to begin the season when they welcome Coventry (April 5), North Branford (April 14), and East Catholic (April 14) to Portland Golf Course.
Santavenere said coming into the season as the defending champs has its benefits, adding, “It’s been nice because there is a confidence with the kids and it’s about who wants to be a part of that next run.”
Sennett added that he’s excited to get his second season on the high school links underway.
“Our main goal for this season is to get better every day and keep lowering that score one shot at a time,” added Stennett. “I'm so proud to be a part of this amazing team. We can’t wait to show everyone what we are capable of.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin