Contributed photo: Portland’s varsity six golfers after the team’s match against Morgan, from left: Jonah Lavallee, Gio Discenza, Luke Stennett, Quinn Lapinski, Aiden Peterson and Mason Lavallee.

By Paul Augeri

Portland has churned out some incredibly good golf teams in the last 10 years. Could this year’s squad be the best of them all?

It’s not the craziest of questions.

Coach Joe Santavenere’s Highlanders have won five state championships since 2016 and will defend last year’s Division III title on June 3 at Tallwood Country Club.

Portland also is the three-time defending Shoreline Conference champion. It’s not unfair, then, to say that when Shoreline teams gather at Stanley Golf Course for their tournament on May 21, second place will hang in the balance.

Because on the front nine of their home course last week, the Highlanders recorded what Santavenere believes their lowest four-player score in a match – 2-over-par 146.

All-State talent Luke Stennett shot 4-under 32, and fellow senior Quinn Lapinski, junior Aidan Peterson and sophomore Jonah Lavallee all turned in a 38.

“For them to score as they did is really impressive,” Santavenere said. “We’ve had some really good scores over the years, but as far as I can find, this is our best. I’m really spoiled as their coach.”

Stennett, he of the medals and titles and intentionally mismatched golf shoes, shot 32 at Portland the previous week. It is his best score as a Highlander, besting his previous low at PGC by four strokes and last year’s 33 at Indian Springs.

He might have gone lower in that Thursday match against Morgan had he not lost his drive on the 350-yard third hole. According to Santavenere, Stennett usually tries to cut the right corner of the fairway by going over the treetops.

“I think he hit it over the green,” the coach said. “It was a really high drive and the line was perfect. So he takes a drop, punches it back to the fairway, hits it within three feet of the cup and walks away with bogey. Most kids are taking double or triple bogey there. I know I’m taking an eight there.”

“He was frustrated, but it was a really good bogey,” Santavenere added. “He birdies three of the last four holes coming. He played No. 9 (301 yards from the white tees) very similar. pounds drive either drives or right beside green. Greens always challenging.”

Stennett won the Division III title last year by eight strokes and has won or shared the title each of the last three years. The University of Rhode Island commit, he continues to amaze Santavenere with all aspects of his game.

“He’s the real deal,” he said. “His confidence and management of what he can do when, and his growth in maturity has really taken off. “He’s always had the skill set. Now he’s understanding what he can do and can’t do. When to be aggressive, when to lay up, or make a more conservative decision with a shot. But his overall maturity is pretty amazing.”

The Highlanders’ success is not just a product of Stennett’s play. Lapinski is in his second season as a major team contributor and, as Santavenere notes, could be any other team’s No. 1 player.

“He’s a super solid player and super underrated because he’s playing with Luke,” he said. “His ball striking has been really good. He’s be the first to tell you that his putting is his issue. Once he cleans that up. If he and Luke get going at the same time, they could be really scary.”

Their leadership is just important to a program with sustained excellence both in an individual and team sense.

“Obviously it starts with Luke and Quinn” for the second straight year, Santavenere said. “The confidence that comes when you have those two guys at the top of your lineup, it trickles down to everyone us. Aiden and Gio (Discenza) were fighting for a position last year. I made them go play an 18-hole qualifier and Aiden beat Gio.

“Jonah is a sophomore and just getting the (varsity golf) experience now. Aiden and Jonah are learning from Luke and Quinn on how to do it, how to put in the work and carry yourselves.

“And we’ve had a pretty good group of juniors who have come in. They are playing that 6-spot, four kids who aren’t really getting the varsity spots right now but are shooting anywhere from 42 to 48 consistently. They just haven’t been in the lower 40s consistently as the guys who are starting. But they’re working hard and hope they keep it going next year.”

The Highlanders are not thinking defending titles just yet. Going low is the immediate goal, and a new bar has been set.

“They are working their butts off to put themselves into a position to do just that,” Santavenere said. “Quinn played in a Challenge Cup Junior Qualifier this weekend (he was the Day 1 leader at 2 under and ended up tying for fourth at The Ridge Club in South Sandwich, Mass.). Some of the other guys took lessons Saturday to clean some stuff up. They’re not taking anything for granted.”

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