Editor’s Note: This story also appears in the May 8, 2017 digital issue of Golfweek
Don Samatulski made a habit of asking college players two questions during a round: “How you doin’?” and “Where you at?”
Samatulski, the men’s and women’s assistant coach at Sacred Heart University, didn’t really care about the answer to the first question. He wanted to know score.
“How can you win a golf tournament if you don’t know where you’re at?” Samatulski would ask. “Or where your opponent’s at?”
Samatulski died unexpectedly of a heart attack March 17 at age 66. Head coach Matt McGreevy had red-and-white rubber bracelets made that bore Samatulski’s initials with a heart on one side and “Where you at?” on the other.
When the women’s team shattered 18-, 36- and 54-hole scoring records to win the Northeast Conference Championship and earn the school’s first NCAA regional bid, senior Ellen Nighbor imagined a speechless Samatulski wiping tears as he doled out hugs.
“We didn’t want to let him down,” she said.
The Sacred Heart athletics program elevated to Division I in 1999, the same year women’s golf was added. In Nighbor’s freshman season the Pioneers barely had enough players to field a team in Fairfield, Conn. There are now 11 on the roster.
McGreevy oversees both the men’s and women’s golf programs at the small Catholic school, and he hired Samatulski in August 2015. The former Pace University head coach had a large presence and a bright smile.
Back in mid-March, McGreevy scheduled a practice session at Sport Center of Connecticut’s heated range in Shelton after 15 inches of snow fell earlier in the week. Samatulski was a manager and teaching professional there, and McGreevy found it strange on that Friday morning that his assistant was unusually late.
“Don loved college basketball,” said McGreevy, “and part of me was thinking he stayed up too late and taped every game that day and would watch every one of them.”
As three seniors on the women’s team hit balls, McGreevy kept trying to reach Samatulski. Eventually, he made the five-minute drive to Samatulski’s high-rise building, where he found the beloved coach slumped over on a couch.
“It was one of the most gut-wrenching things,” said Brad Hurlbut, deputy director of athletics at Sacred Heart.
McGreevy asked fifth-year senior Connor Donnelly, captain of the men’s team, to gather players in the sky box at the William H. Pitt Health and Recreation Center.
“We were down in Florida with him less than a week before,” Donnelly said of Samatulski. “It doesn’t process in your head.”
As the Pioneers mourned, McGreevy scrambled to work out logistics. When tournaments for the two teams overlapped, Samatulski typically took the women. With the men scheduled to compete at Chambers Bay outside Seattle on April 3-4 while the women were in Littletown, Pa., McGreevy hatched an unusual plan.
What if Donnelly took the women’s team to the Wagner Seahawk Spring Invitational?
The 23-year-old has enjoyed talking coaching philosophies and strategies with McGreevy over the years and is a proven leader, serving as vice chair of the National Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. After clearing it with the school’s athletic director and NCAA compliance, Donnelly took the helm with senior associate athletic director Chris O’Connor behind the wheel.
The men’s and women’s teams are close, Donnelly noted, frequently practicing and working out together. Nighbor said it felt natural for the respected student-athlete to pitch in.
“(Donnelly) went about it the right way,” she said.
Like on the fifth hole in the final round, when Donnelly stepped in to help Nighbor read the break on a 30-foot putt. The ball almost seemed to stop on the edge of the cup before tumbling in.
Donnelly gave a nod to the late Samatulski for the tip, and the Pioneers’ come-from-behind charge took hold. With no live scoring, McGreevy counted on text messages from his fill-in coach down the stretch. The 20-minute radio silence as scores were posted and tallied seemed to drag on forever.
The final text from Donnelly to McGreevy: “We won.”
Where you at, Pioneers?
In the winner’s circle.
“It was kind of one of those things,” Nighbor said, “where you can let it break you or use it to make you stronger.”
The inspired Sacred Heart squad soon headed to conference play in Daytona Beach, Fla., to avenge last year’s one-stroke loss.
Sacred Heart’s dominating performance at LPGA International included a playoff for individual honors between Nighbor and teammate Chelsea Sedlar, who won the 2016 title. Sedlar and junior Abigail Hood each closed with 70 to set a program record for lowest round.
The Pioneers won by 32 shots. They’ll join power schools such as UCLA and Arizona State in Lubbock, Texas, on May 8-10 for NCAA regionals.
After the conference triumph, Nighbor looked up the email she sent McGreevy at the start of the season that listed her individual and team goals. She’d reached them all.
On May 14, Nighbor will graduate from Sacred Heart and begin work as a district manager for Aldi’s supermarket chain. But first, there’s history to be made.
They’ll put on bright yellow shirts in memory of the man who always bought the loudest shirt in the pro shop and brought a smile to everyone’s face.
“He loved what he did,” Nighbor said. “We all felt that.”
Boy would he have loved this.