Portland High School golf won a second straight state championship at Fairview Golf Course in Harwinton on June 7. Picture (l-r): Hannah Brunk, Owen Brunk, Joe LaMalfa, Giovanni Discenza, Eli Evison, Quinn Lapinski, Luke Stennett, Aidan Peterson, Ty Mazzotta, Ava Hurley, head coach Joe Santavenere.
Perfection isn’t easy, especially in golf.
But the golf team at Portland High School hit the equivalent of a hole-in-one this spring.
The Highlanders swept through all 16 regular season matches before winning both the Shoreline Conference championship in May and Division III state championship at Fairview Golf Course in Harwinton on June 7.
It was the team’s second straight state championship and the program’s fifth title in the past six seasons.
Head coach Joe Santavenere said the program’s success is so much more than what takes place during the tournaments.
“I think people assume they are just good at golf. There is a lot of hard work that goes on in practice and on the weekends. They help each other out and they are a really strong team,” said Santavenere. “The team dynamic is great and it’s one of the best groups that I’ve had. That support and camaraderie they have is outstanding.”
Sophomore Luke Stennett again shined this spring, tying his close friend Colin Murphy of Coginchaug as the medalist during both the SLC and state championship events.
In the state finals, Stennett needed some late magic and shot an eagle on the final hole to finish tied atop the leaderboard.
“I had no idea where I was standing and I couldn't really think of a number I needed. I just played it the best I could,” Stennett recalled of his mentality prior to the 18th hole.
Stennett pushed his tee shot near the trees and needed to battle around 220 yards uphill into the wind to reach the green.
“I ended up having a good lie, but the stance was awkward. My mindset going into it was to try and go left because the entire right is out of board,” recalled Stennett, who used his six-iron for the miraculous shot. “I took deep breaths and told myself to swing smooth. I was hitting irons good all day so I had confidence that I could hit it well.”
Stennett crushed the ball, which arched high into the sun-filled sky before dropping and rolling within 10 feet of the cup. He said he was “shocked” at the ball’s eventual location and was confident he could tap in the eagle despite the fact that he had previously struggled on the greens.
“I went from my putting being a disaster to knowing I would make that putt. It was the best stroke I had all day and it went dead center into the cup. I’m not going to lie, I did a first pump,” recalled Stennett.
It was the second straight year that Stennett had risen to the occasion on the final hole, shooting a birdie to win the tournament outright a season ago.
Santavenere called his young golf prodigy “clutch” and added that Stennett had a couple of bad breaks throughout his championship round, but played his best golf when it counted the most.
“If you look at what he’s done in these two years, it’s pretty special,” said Santavenere. “He can turn the page and move on to the next hole. He’s grown a ton since his freshman year with that mental part of the game.”
Stennett’s eagle putt was exclamation point to another dominant performance from the Highlanders, who bested runner-up St. Paul Catholic by 15 strokes.
Quinn Lapinski shot a 75 (+3) to finish 3rd, Eli Evison shot a 78 (+6) to finish tied for 7th, and Joseph LaMalfa shot an 84 (+12) to tie for 23rd.
Evison joined the team a season ago and was on the JV team at a junior. Following an offseason of crafting his game on the links, he is now leaving PHS as a state champion.
“He committed himself and he wanted to become part of something special and he did it,” stated Santavenere. “That is his legacy and something that you can show the younger player as an example of what you can do. Who wants to be that next Eli?”
Evison, who will play college basketball at Eastern Connecticut State University, was one of four multi-sport seniors on the team this season. Twins Owen and Hannah Brunk, along with Ava Hurley provided the team depth on the course and intangibles off of it, which upped the team’s morale.
Owen was an all-state football player and wrestler, while Hannah starred on the soccer fields and basketball courts. Hurley played basketball and was normally a star tennis player during the spring season, but chose to join the golf team this spring as she recovered from an injury.
Santavenere praised his seniors, calling the Brunks “outstanding leaders” and crediting Hurley with making great strides as a first-year golfer.
The four departing players are the latest in a series of impactful senior classes that Santavenere has had during his time at PHS.
“All the kids get along and that has been the culture the last five, six, seven years. As a coach, you couldn’t ask for anything more than that,” added Santavenere. “They collectively wanted to do something special and they did whatever they need to do to reach that team goal. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Stennett and Lapinksi’s performances at the state championship qualified the duo for the State Open at Black Hall Club in Old Lyme on June 11. Stennett shot a 77 to tie for 8th and Lapinski shot an 86 to tie for 21st.
“We’ve been fortunate to have those kids every year that come in and work really hard and they make an impact,” said Santavenere, who has coached the program for a decade. “It’s neat to see that culture carry on from one year to the next.”
Stennett said the individual accolades are rewarding, yet it’s the team titles that carry more meaning. He added that prior to each match the players each tell one another, “good luck, play well, have fun.”
“Obviously winning the state champions and shoreline is a great team accomplishment but what I think makes it standout for me is the hard work and dedication that went into these matches. We were all working towards the same goals and wanted to accomplish them together.” added Stennett.
As for a three-peat next spring?
“The goal is to stay there,” said Stennett. “We have to keep trucking along and making a statement that Portland is a small school, but we have some amazing athletes that can do some great things.”
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin