BLAIRSVILLE – Stepping to the tee with her 9-iron in hand, Caroline McConnell was feeling good.
The South Fayette freshman golfer was putting together a solid round, which included a pair of birdies and eight pars, and had plenty of confidence as she played her next-to-to hole, the 118-yard, par-3 eighth.
“I had the perfect distance for a 9-iron. I practiced with that club on that hole in my two practice rounds,” McConnell explained.
With a solid swing and a fortunate bounce, McConnell made her first hole-in-one, which propelled the ninth grader to a 2-over 74 and a second-place finish Monday in the PIAA Class AAA Western Regional at Tom’s Run Golf Course to advance to the state finals.
“I was a little nervous on the first tee shot, but other than that it was just another round of golf for me,” McConnell said. “My short game (was important). I was able to get up and down a lot even if I didn’t hit the green. My putting was great, too.”
McConnell was one of six area golfers to advance to the two-day championship event Oct. 22-23 at Heritage Hills Golf Course in York.
The only other local girls golfer, Carmichaels sophomore Remmey Lohr, advanced in Class AA with an 85. In boys Class AA, Bentworth’s Luke Dziak, Chartiers-Houston’s Jack Hritsko and Carmichaels’ Matthew Barrish each advanced.
McConnell’s teammate, Luke Lestini, who was the only local qualifier in boys Class AAA, shot a 4-over 76, tying with four other golfers for the final four qualifying spots. Lestini found out about the playoff while he was putting on the practice green, preparing for what he thought was a likely playoff.
“I was on the putting green the whole time,” Lestini said with a sigh of relief. “I was playing good from the start but tailed off toward the end. I knew 76 would be close.”
He was even par through the first 12 holes before two bogeys and a double bogey over his final six holes.
Lestini’s brother, Evan, was able to give him some advice after playing at this same event in 2011. In his senior year, Evan Lestini tied for fourth, shooting 74.
“The cut when he made it was 79, so it’s a complete different game now,” Lestini said. “He told me to just be patient because there are a few hard holes but there are also a few where you can make birdies. I try to take what he did and learn from that. It helped a lot.”
Lestini and McConnell helped the Lions to a 9-1 record in section play, and most of those matches went down to the wire. Coach Rob Ruffolo believes the narrow nature of those matches helped both golfers, neither of whom had advanced this far before.
“Our plan every single time we play a course is to map it out, play backwards and look where we want to be through it,” Ruffolo said. “Caroline and Luke are both astute and are students of the game, knowing that if you put yourself in a good position it will likely mean you will have success. We had six matches that were less than a five-stroke differential between winning and losing. When you are stuck in that kind of environment, you either become a winner or a loser. Both of them were winners today.”
Only two of the six golfers to qualify had previously advanced to the state finals. Luke Dziak, who finished in eighth place with a 4-over 76, and Barrish, who carded a 78 and tied for 10th, will be in York for a second time.
“I started really strong at even par through the first four holes, including when I made a 40-foot putt on my opening hole to save par,” Barrish said. “I just played solid golf and tried to stay away from the big numbers. Getting off to a good start was my goal. It set a good tone for the day.”
Dziak, a senior, returns to states for the first time since his freshman year.
“It feels great to be going back,” he said. “The wet conditions set up perfectly for me because I’m used to playing in the rain.”
The rain, wind and overcast sky added to the nerves for underclassmen Hritsko and Lohr, who were playing the course for the first time. Hritsko shot 80 by parring his last five holes.
“I finished well,” Hritsko, who tied for 15th, said. “I started a little worse (than in the WPIAL championship), but parred three and four, which were two of my final four holes.”
Hritsko escaped without any damage on the par-5 4th after hitting into a hazard. He chipped onto the green and one-putted to save par.
Lohr birdied a pair of holes to tie for ninth. Only 11 girls advanced in Class AA.
“It was so stressful,” Lohr said. “I just kept going over (to the scoreboard) to count to see if I was in. My nerves normally keep me on my toes, so I just kept my head down and kept playing. I just had to slow down, finish my swing and play my game.”
McGuffey’s C.J. King (89) and Chartiers-Houston’s Spencer Kane (84) failed to qualify.