Pictured: The five Portland golfers who took part in the CIAC Division IV championship tournament on Tuesday, from left: Joe LaMalfa, Ben Lucas, Luke Stennett, Quinn Lapinski and Nick Matera with coach Joe Santavenere.
By Paul Augeri
Some outside the (tee) box thinking produced a wacky, memorable finish to the CIAC Division IV championship tournament — especially for Portland’s Luke Stennett.
The talented, unassuming freshman made birdie on the 18th hole to win the individual title with an even-par round of 72 to go with the Highlanders’ fourth team championship in five seasons.
With a storm closing in at Fairview Farms in Harwinton on Tuesday and a bottleneck at the 18th tee, those in authority decided, in the name of safety, to have the final two foursomes tee off together. Each player hit his shot and most were carted out to the fairway and then the green.
“That whole hole, there were golf balls flying everywhere and it was super fun to watch,” Stennett said. “It’s something I’ll never forget. If there was nobody in front of you, you were hitting the ball.”
Portland’s first state title since winning three straight from 2016-18 came with a score of 316 (28 over), eight shots better than runner-up Immaculate of Danbury. St. Paul, Northwest Catholic and Coventry rounded out the top five.
“It was awesome. We had a great season,” Highlanders coach Joe Santavenere said. “We had a lot of competition on the team this year, which was really unique for us. Usually it’s cut and dried with our top five, but this year we rotated eight guys on the varsity roster who were constantly battling for spots. A couple of days before the tournament I had to decide on the five and just went by numbers, but eight guys contributed to this title.”
Stennett’s 72 was one shot better than Daniel LeBlanc of Immaculate and Matthew Downes of St. Paul. Hale-Ray junior Luke Karpiej, the Shoreline Conference champion, was fourth with a 74 and Coginchaug junior Colin Murphy rounded out the top five with a 76. The Blue Devils were eighth as a team.
The Highlanders’ scoring came from senior Ben Lucas (79), freshman Quinn Lapinski (82) and sophomore Joe LaMalfa 83. Senior Nick Matera, who shot 93, was the team’s No. 5 player but didn’t factor on the team’s card. Stennett was really happy for Lucas, whose goal was to break 80.
Stennett, who had four birdies, four bogeys and 10 pars in his round, thought even-par would give him a really good chance of winning the tournament. He said he was in a positive frame of mind – “I don’t get distracted very easily” — as he hustled to the par-5 18th on one of his favorite courses in Connecticut.
“I hit a really good drive up the left side of fairway and had 142 yards left in a really good position,” he said. “It was a middle left pin on a three-tiered green. I hit a pitching wedge from 142 and tried to land it and make it check up on the second tier.”
Instead, his shot went left, rolled through the green-side bunker and into the grass of the down slope.
“I had to pitch back up,” said Stennett. “It was a really tough spot I left myself in. When I was thinking about my shot, I was just thinking of getting it on the same tier as the pin to have a straight putt to the hole and a chance to make it. I had to get underneath the ball to get it over the lip of the bunker and it came out soft and high to 15 feet. I couldn’t have it a better shot.”
At one point, there were eight balls on the green and thunder close by, yet he kept his wits about him.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before,” Santavenere said.
Stennett also knew he was tied on the card with Downes and LeBlanc, who were in his foursome.
“We were neck and neck the whole time,” he said. “I was the second to last one to putt out of the eight. I’m like, I just got up there, looked at the line and knew I had to be left edge of the hole. The ball was halfway to the hole and I thought, ‘that’s going in!’ And it went in for birdie. I was so happy after that.”
“He did a fist pump. He knew,” Santavenere said. “The way Luke goes about himself, you would never know he’s that good at golf. It’s just cool to watch.”
Coginchaug’s Murphy had a strong start to his round with birdies on three of his first six holes. Two double bogeys put him back over par, but he went out on a good note with a birdie at 18..
“My goal was to make the State Open (top-three finish),” he said. “I was on a great roll there but had a few unlucky breaks. My whole game was on, but not many putts dropped like usual. I think overall I played really well. I play better when I have fun and need to take pressure off myself and go out and just play.”
Next year’s Shoreline and state tournaments should be something to see with Murphy, Stennett, Wise, Karpiej and Lapinski among a slew of talented underclassmen returning.
“It’s incredible. We have so much talent in the Shoreline,” Murphy said.
Said Stennett: “I love seeing everybody get better. We have close matches with each other. Once in a while we can be tough on each other, but it’s a good time every time we play.”
**Stennett and CIAC Division III champion Jack Wise of Cromwell will play in the State Open on Saturday at Old Lyme’s Black Hall Club. Qualifiers are determined by scoring differential throughout the season, with Stennett finishing in the top 25. The top three finishers in the division championships also qualify.
**Stennett was thrilled to see Lucas break 80 in his final outing as a Highlanders.
“He’s been very consistent – 43s, 42s – but his goal every time out is to break 80,” he said. “His confidence is amazing. Ben is a great kid, super funny, and loves the game of golf.”
**Stennett said he will compete in the 15-18 division of the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in late July in North Carolina. He will play Pinehurst’s No. 2 and 4 courses.