PHOTO: Senior Shane Sienko had 14 pars and one birdie in Monday's pivotal final round (Andrew Nyhus photo)
For the fifth time in the last seven years, St. Thomas Men's Golf has earned a ticket into the NCAA Championship tournament.
This 2017-18 team's winning formula? A level of depth and balance not seen in program history.
UST held off No. 17-ranked St. John's by six strokes and Augsburg by eight strokes to win the three-day, 54-hole MIAC Championships. The 10-team tournament concluded Monday in Jordan, Minn.
Coach Scott Proshek's Tommies rebounded from a disappointing 2016-17 season that included a fourth-place MIAC finish. Monday's victory secured the conference's automatic berth into the May 15-18, 2018 national meet in Greensboro, N.C.
Before last weekend, the Toms, while often ranked nationally, had played 16 consecutive multi-team tournaments over a two-year span without capturing a team crown.
Proshek soon realized this fall that he had as many as a dozen players capable of making his five-man MIAC lineup, each with the potential to score in the top 25. He still had five athletes playing off in practices last week for the final two lineup spots.
"I don't like to have qualifying rounds the week of the conference tournament, I'd rather have our lineup settled," Proshek explained. "But the depth we have this year helped push everybody. The guys took the decision out of my hand. We ended up with four seniors and a sophomore, and that leadership and experience proved valuable."
Winning Never Easy
Golf probably has as much parity as any sport in the conference. The 54-hole tournament format, with a variety of weather conditions, provides a stiff test, too. St. Thomas becomes the fifth different school in the last six years to hoist the MIAC men's golf trophy.
It also was St. Thomas' first men's golf conference title since 2011, and just its second since 1980. The St. Thomas seniors came so close in 2015, falling by a single stroke to Augsburg. That UST team went on to win the 18-team Golfweek preview tournament that month, and in the next spring tied for fifth in the nation.
On paper, the Toms started the weekend as an underdog behind defending champion St. John's and an improved Augsburg team. St. Thomas wasted no time resetting the narrative, as it led by nine shots after the opening round and 11 after the second day.
How big is a 36-hole team lead in this 54-hole event? The last 10 MIAC team champions have led going into the final day and closed out the victory.
UST's team balance shined through on Monday -- its steady play throughout the morning never gave St. John's and Augsburg an opening. UST maintained a 10-12 shot lead until the last few holes and finished with a six-shot cushion.
All-America and team No. 1 player Pete Sienko of Spring Lake Park -- the MIAC meet medalist in 2015 -- started fast with a bogey-free opening round of 68. That was his 14th round of 71 or better in three seasons with the Tommies.
Teams drop the highest score of their five players each day. The Toms' Nos. 2-3-4-5 players had their score count each of the last two rounds.
"If you had told me that we could win the championship only using Pete Sienko's score on one of the three days, I wouldn't have believed it," Proshek said. "That speaks to the depth and team focus we had.
"Pete tries so hard -- he wants to play well all the time -- he can get himself in trouble, and a round can turn sour. To his credit, his leadership as a team captain was on display those last two days."
Shane Sienko of St. Thomas Academy took third out of 50 players with rounds of 69-77-74/220. He improved 25 spots from the 2016 conference meet placing. He had six birdies on the first day, and 14 pars on Monday's final round.
"It's nice to see Shane get his due," Proshek said. "It's been fun over the years to watch him and see the growth, both physically and mentally, in his game."
The coach also cited senior Owen Nowicki of Green Bay, a guy who's always in the mix but previously couldn't crack his team's top five for the biggest meets. Playing in his first conference tournament, Nowicki shot 73-74-76/223 to share eighth and receive All-MIAC distinction. He led his team with 38 par scores over the 54 holes.
"Talk about a guy stepping up in the moment, Owen was fantastic for us," Proshek said. "We have a saying: Let Owen be Owen. He doesn't have a particularly long game off the tee, but he's methodical and has a smart game. He just plays to his talent level."
Herb, a sophomore from Middleton, Wis., and Gannon, a senior from Benilde-St. Margaret's, also brought steady play when it was needed the most. Herb led UST this weekend with nine birdies.
PHOTO: Coach Scott Proshek (Andrew Nyhus photo)
Enjoy the Moment
The coach also cited team members whose play and leadership helped raise the bar this fall -- including senior Matt Radke, plus a six-player freshman class with huge potential.
Proshek was pleased to share in the victory on Monday with a contingent of UST colleagues, alums, parents and team members.
"It was satisfying to have all the parents, other team members, and former players come out at some point this weekend," he explained. "We had guys from the last MIAC champion team (2011) either here at the course or texting their support. We also had our athletic director, Steve Fritz, our hockey coach Jeff Boeser, and our athletic trainer Jim Rakow come out to support us. That made this even more special for our guys, and made it proud to be a Tommie."
St. Thomas, which started the year at No. 24 in the Division III poll, was unranked in last week's poll. The Toms will have next weekend off, then close the fall portion of its schedule competing in the rugged Golfweek tourney in Florida, Oct. 14-17.
"It'ill be nice to take this week and enjoy our practices, then go down to Florida and see what we can do there against some more really good competition," Proshek said.
St. Thomas men's teams won or shared 14 of a possible 22 MIAC regular-season team championships the previous two school years, but none on the golf course. Thanks to the depth and balance displayed by Proshek's guys, UST starts out 2017-18 with its first conference gold plaque.
Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is starting his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.
If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at firstname.lastname@example.org