By John Goralski
A small gallery of coaches and players gathered at the fringe of the final green to watch Eric Flood chip the ball a few feet from the 18th hole. The Southington senior flashed a smile at his teammates, grabbed his putter, and sauntered onto the green elbow-to-elbow with some of the top golfers in the state.
Rains tampered the scoring at the Division I championships. The frustration was etched across players faces—even in the final foursome—but moments after Flood drained his final varsity putt to secure Southington’s top 4 finish at the 18-hole championship, the smiling Knights gathered on the green for a final picture with their coach.
With just two seniors in their lineup, Southington came within striking distance of the top team. They edged a host of teams that boast college-bound seniors. One Knight clawed his way onto the all-state roster. Another one was satisfied with his finish on the bubble.
On the final day of the spring season, the Knights proved that they belonged in the mix. The breakout year was no fluke.
“This was something that we were expecting at the beginning of the year,” said Dave Valentukonis, one of two seniors on the championship roster. “We had everyone returning, and we just had high expectations all year. We have a great team. We’re young with a couple of experienced players. It was a good combination that really worked for us.”
As freshmen, Valentukonis clawed his way onto the postseason roster as a freshman just to have the Knights tie for last place against the elite field of larger schools. As sophomores, Valentukonis and Flood helped lift the Knights past one team in the postseason as Southington continued to struggle.
As juniors, Southington turned a corner as they broke into the top 15. As seniors, the Knights worked their way into the top four at the start of the day and held their ranking through the final hole.
The seniors have already laid down the gauntlet for the younger guys.
“Every year that I was here at Southington High School, I could tell that we were getting nearer to something special,” said Flood. “These sophomores are in the same position that we were, only better. They’re going to have so much experience. The Southington golf team is really looking good for the next couple of seasons.”
Glastonbury (303) edged Greenwich (307) and Ridgefield (310) for the top spot, but Southington (316) tied Newtown for fourth place in the final standings, and the Knights finished ahead of perennial powers like Simsbury (323) and Staples (320).
“When you tie for fourth with the caliber of teams that are here, that says something,” said Blue Knight coach Jim DiNello. “Today, they proved that their whole body of work was tremendous. That second place finish in the CCC championship wasn’t just a good day. Finishing fourth kind of validates everything. Obviously, we had aspirations of coming in here and winning it, but you have to give Glastonbury credit. They’re a very good golf team, but our kids represented our school and our community very well.”
Four of Southington’s golfers finished in the top third of the competition. Sophomore Drew Szandrocha finished tied for 10th place to claim all-state honors with a 4-over-par 76. Flood (79) broke into the top 25. Valentukonis tied sophomore Jake D’Alessandro for the final score (81), and sophomore Ryan Burrill finished just outside the top 75 with his 86.
“I couldn’t ask any more from a group of guys,” said DiNello. “At the end of the day, I think it’s important for people to know that even though I’m proud of the way that these guys played as golfers, I’m way more proud of the way that they handled themselves on a daily basis with practice, big matches, or any matches. When it’s all said and done, nobody will remember the score that we posted on this golf course. They’ll remember the type of team they were. They are wonderful people, and they proved it every day. That’s what I’m most proud about.”
The competition was the last varsity contest for Flood and Valentukonis, but DiNello said that he expects their legacy to continue over the next few years as the Knights try to build on the standard built by their senior class.
“Any time you try to build a program, you need guys like these to set an example,” he said. “Dave and Eric have done that, not only with the way that they played but with those other things that you might not see. They work with kids from the junior golf league. They promote our program, and they work hard in it. They are great ambassadors for the sport and for Southington High School and are tremendous leaders.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at jgoralski@ southingtonobserver.com.