Pictured: Portland’s 2022 Division III state championship team, from left: Joe LaMalfa, Gio Discenza, Eli Evison, Quinn Lapinski, Luke Stennett and coach Joe Santavenere. (Contributed photo)

By Paul Augeri
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

Incredibly, it happened all over again on the golf course. For Portland’s superior team, for Highlanders sophomore Luke Stennett and for Coginchaug senior Colin Murphy.

The Highlanders won a state championship for the second year in a row and fifth time in six seasons, outscoring runner-up St. Paul of Bristol by 15 strokes in the CIAC Division III tournament at Fairview Farms in Harwinton on Tuesday. East Catholic was third (338). Morgan (339) and Canton (343) rounded out the top five.

And just two weeks after being declared co-champions of the Shoreline Conference, Stennett and Murphy — friendly rivals on the links — shared Division III medalist honors after taking different paths to their rounds of 1-over-par 73.

Murphy started his round on No. 10 and stumbled out of the gate, shooting 5-over through eight holes.

“On (18) I sat on the tee box and thought, ‘All right, if I want to win this thing I’ve gotta do something,'” he said.

A birdie there re-energized Murphy. He followed it with an eagle-3 four holes later and added another birdie on No. 8 for a 4-under finish over the last 10 holes to keep himself in contention.

“The whole day I didn’t really feel too good, but No. 18 was the turning point for me. It was a gritty performance,” Murphy said. “I never let myself get out of it. I never lost hope. I knew I could pull through, it was just a matter of doing it and I did it.”

Meanwhile, Stennett, last year’s state champ in Division IV at even-par 72, started on No. 1. After making the turn at 1-over and tumbling to 3-over with bogeys at 11 and 14, he made birdie at 15 only to give the shot back with a 6 on the par-5 17th.

On 18, he said he push-sliced his drive way right and wound up to the right of the 13th tee box and close to a stone wall. Facing an uphill second shot into the wind from 220 yards, he pulled out a 6-iron and landed it about 10 feet from the hole. He made the eagle putt for his 73.

“Pretty incredible,” Portland coach Joe Santavenere said.

“Luke didn’t know on the last hole exactly who was winning the tournament,” he said. “The eagle putt he made, we didn’t know what it was for, the significance of the putt. At least in the Shoreline tournament he had a better sense of what he needed to do. Today, I had no clue and Luke had no clue where Colin or other guys were on the board.”

Murphy was waiting near the 18th green for Stennett to finish and saw his second shot.

“It was probably the best shot I’ve ever seen anyone hit,” he said. “Honestly, when I saw it I thought Luke was going to come in a little lower than me. When I saw him in the clubhouse I thought he’d be 3-under or something like that.”

“Obviously I’m happy for both of us,” he added. “Personally, I wanted to win it. I’m really proud of how I finished. I could have packed it in and not fought back, but I’m a senior and I needed this. To shoot 33 on the front, I’m really proud of that.”

Stennett said he trusted himself to put a good swing on his ball from 220.

“I knew I had to do something because I had a feeling that Colin was going to play well today,” he said. If I hit it good enough, I would be in a position to make birdie. I closed the clubface and swung as smooth as I could. It started right at the pin and didn’t leave it the whole way. I never saw it land but I thought it could be really good. I wasn’t expecting to hit it on the green because it was so far away, so it must have cut through the wind.”

The 10-foot putt was left to right, “a half a cup outside the left edge.”

“My putting ton the day was not good,” Stennett said. “I think I had 36 putts, so I was struggling a little bit, but I figured one putt could make up for all of those mistakes. It put my best stroke of the day on it and went dead center.”

Learning that he and Murphy had matching rounds did not surprise him.

“We have the skill factor, both of us, to be right there and it ended up that way again,” Stennett said. “But again, it’s great to know that we’re right there for each other and pushed each other to our limits. Even though we didn’t play well today, we ground it out.”

Santavenere basked in the Highlanders’ collective performance. Quinn Lapinski shot 75 to finish alone in third and senior Eli Evison posted a 78. Evison, who first picked up a club two years ago, finished tied for seventh and was nine strokes better than his round in the Shoreline tournament at Stanley Golf Course.

“The big surprise was Eli,” said Santavenere. “He was even through seven and I told him, ‘Stay with it.’ He finished 2-over on the front, but it was an unbelievable start for him. When his group got to 10, there was about a four- or five-group backup. They waited a half-hour to hit their next shot.”

Evison made triple bogey on No. 10 and bogey on 11, but he shot even-par the rest of the way.

“It was unbelievable for him to do it in a state championship,” Santavenere said.

“Eli’s a senior and it was his last event in high school, and I told him to cherish the moment and show ’em what you got,” Stennett said. “Those were his first times breaking 40 for nine and he did it on both sides. He was the deciding factor today. We gave him so much credit for today. He should be very proud of himself.”

Cromwell’s Jack Wise and Coginchaug’s A.J. Turman shot 77 to tie for fifth, while Morgan’s CJ Giuliano and Hale-Ray’s Luke Karpiej shot 80 to finish in a three-way tie for 11th.

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