By John Goralski
There were no heartfelt goodbyes when Coach Jim DiNello faced his golfers for the last time in 2013. There was only a shared disappointment about their postseason finish, and a shared resolve about finishing the job.
For the Southington golfers, the nine month break was more like a halftime than an off-season. With nobody lost to graduation and almost a full year of practice behind them, the Knights are finally ready to finish what they started.
DiNello is working hard to temper the growing excitement.
“In division one, if you make states in that 1-20 range, you know that you have a pretty darn good golf team. When you bring everybody back, you would hope that our ranking would be even higher this year,” said the coach. “But the bottom line is that this is a new year. Our guys still have to go out and play well.”
Last spring served as the opening act. The young team stumbled at times in the early season but continued to build steam as the season progressed. The four best players averaged almost 180 strokes over nine holes in the first week of the season, but they had cut more than 30 strokes from their average as they stormed toward the season finale.
Two players broke a team record as they stormed into eighth place at the senior-laden Chappa Invitational. A freshman broke into the top 10 at the Division I championships. The team score at the state meet (332) didn’t turn many heads, but the 14th place finish was just a taste of what this team could do.
DiNello’s biggest question at the start of the season will be how his team will rise to the challenge. Southington’s still young. As many as three sophomores could challenge for a varsity position, but opponents aren’t going to take the Knights lightly after last season’s late run.
“When nobody really talks about you much, it’s easy to just go about your every day business,” said DiNello. “We’re going from underdog to being a possible contender or division champion. It will be interesting to see if they can handle those sorts of lofty expectations. I have those sorts of expectations, too, for our guys, but we have to remember that we are still very young.”
On the other hand, Southington returns a pair of senior co-captains with four years of varsity experience. When Dave Valentukonis and Eric Flood arrived at the high school, Southington was struggling through the rebuilding process. Now, they will anchor a strong core of veterans as the Knights look to take the next step.
“It’s going to be hard when this season’s over after having these guys in the program for four years,” DiNello said. “Their confidence exudes on a daily basis. They represent the team, the community, and the program very well. When you have a young team like we do, it’s important to have a couple of guys that can bring that maturity to the golf course every day.”
Senior duffer Tom Fischer was also on the roster a year ago, and he returns along with a host of upperclassmen with varied amounts of varsity experience. With former freshmen phenoms Andrew Szandrocha, Ryan Burrill, and Jacob D’Alessandro returning with a year of varsity experience, the biggest challenge might be whittling the opening day roster down to just five varsity golfers.
Last year, Szandrocha clawed his way into the varsity lineup as a freshman and posted the team’s best score in the postseason with a 76 (+4) over 18 holes.
“I’m not 100 percent sure how that depth is going to shake out, but I can tell you that whoever our top seven or eight golfers are they are going to be guys that have played varsity matches before,” said DiNello. “They are all going to be guys that have felt the pressure from big time matches. Having seven or eight guys to pick from to play five guys against another school? You can’t help but to feel good about that.”
The Knights are sure to be tested right from the start with a regular season schedule that’s peppered with powerhouse programs. Five of the first seven contests will be on the road against teams like NW Catholic, Farmington, Newington, and Simsbury.
“The flip side of that is that we’ll be at home a lot down the stretch, and that’s good to me,” said the coach. “If you’re going to be home, let’s be home in the good weather. Let’s be home when you really have to start posting those big scores and building your confidence going into the postseason.”
This year also marks a new addition to Southington golf as DiNello welcomed three Lady Knights to his program’s ranks. Juniors Shannon McDonald and Katie Martocchio will team up with Caroline Kemnitz as a Lady Knight trio. There aren’t enough to field a complete varsity team, but DiNello hopes that it’s a great sign of things to come.
“The big thing is that they’ll have an opportunity to get better, work on their games, and have a chance to be the pioneers for girls golf here at Southington High School. That’s encouraging,” he said. “It would be really nice if we could get five, get sanctioned, and be a real CIAC team, but you have to start somewhere. Mary Boissoneault got the program started a few years ago, but she had to play with the guys. Hopefully, Caroline, Shannon, and Katie will be the start of something.”
Southington golf is on the rise.
“The program is moving in the right direction, but it has been doing that over the past seven years,” said DiNello. “It’s really exciting. It’s been a while since this team has been able to make a run at a division championship. If the guys play well and maintain their focus and poise, they can do just that.”
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By John Goralski