Free-spirited St. Thomas (Minn.) cruises to Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational title

Golfweek/Kevin Casey

Free-spirited St. Thomas (Minn.) cruises to Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational title

Men

Free-spirited St. Thomas (Minn.) cruises to Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational title

SCORES: MEN | WOMEN

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SANDESTIN, Fla. – There’s nothing like entering an event with the pressure off. But St. Thomas (Minn.) was still out to prove itself at the Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational.

Mission accomplished.

The Tommies entered Tuesday’s final round at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort’s Raven Golf Club with a nine-shot lead and were never really challenged over the final 18, firing a closing 11-over 295 to finish 5 over and seven shots ahead of the field.

It’s the team’s second straight win this season and technically their second straight at the Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational (they last played – and won – the tournament in 2015).

In a field with the top seven squads in Division III and 13 of the top 25, it was the unranked Tommies that prevailed.

“This win validates what the kids have worked so hard for,” said Scott Proshek, the head coach at St. Thomas (Minn.). “It’s pretty nice to see, especially the seniors, step up and finally get their due.”

The Tommies began the fall season with four events in a 30-day span. The fast-paced start to the season has a lot to do with a quirk in their schedule: the MIAC, the conference in which St. Thomas (Minn.) competes, hosts its conference championship in October.

With an automatic NCAA Division III Championship berth up for grabs so early, it incentivizes MIAC teams to be strong right away. That didn’t seem to be the case for the Tommies, as the team failed to win any of its first three events. In fact, their showing at the Twin Cities Classic, their final event before the MIAC Championship, was a disheartening performance.

Then a switch flipped. The team began zoning in on the slogan “Win the Day” and brought a narrower focus to the MIAC Championship. With the change, the Tommies posted a six-shot win – the team’s first conference title in six years – and was hardly surprised.

“I think the guys expected it,” Proshek said.

Whether they expected this follow-up in Sandestin, well this is a deep 18-member squad with high goals. The team didn’t practice much in the two-week lead up to the event, but that was by design to recharge after a taxing month.

The revitalized group that showed up at the Raven Golf Club seemed little fazed by anything the course threw at them. Four players finished in the top 25, with senior Pete Sienko (T-6, 2 under) leading the way. Sophomore Emmet Herb (T-8, 2 over) also finished in the top 10. Seniors Owen Nowicki (T-20, 5 over) and Shane Sienko (T-25, 6 over) placed in the top 25 as well, with fellow senior Riley Gannon (T-32, 8 over) also contributing to the win.

Huntingdon’s Stephen Shephard closed in 3-under 68 to earn medalist honors by four shots at 8 under. The Hawks finished runner-up at 12 over after a final-round 8-over 292. Concordia (Texas), the leaders after the first round, placed ninth at 27 over.

The Tommies followed a similar approach to their 2015 win. While that victory entailed a wild final-day comeback, the idea was to keep the atmosphere light.

In the midst of that come-from-behind win, Proshek pretended he had grabbed a fish out of the pond near 18 green as a way to mess with his players.

That joke lives on. Proshek keeps a stuffed fish toy in the golf simulator room at St. Thomas (Minn.) as a way to harken back to that day – and bring up the origin story for inquiring minds.

He’s not the only one with the playful mindset. The team is a close-knit group that often has get-togethers at Pete Sienko’s and Gannon’s off-campus house (teammate Thomas Stoxen and another friend live there, too).

There are team barbecues and intense matches of spikeball and cornhole in the backyard at the place.

The competitiveness remains fiercest on the course, though. Any Tommies player who creeps into the 80s or worse in a tournament round better be weary. Teammates have sometimes taken to bringing jerseys of famous athletes to practice when one of their own posts a high score in competition.

Shooting an 84 has brought a Randy Moss Minnesota Vikings jersey, an 87 a Sidney Crosby Pittsburgh Penguins jersey and a 91 a Steven Stamkos Tampa Bay Lightning jersey. The perpetrator must wear the jersey at a practice (for a short time) as a reminder of the high number he shot but also as a way to offer some laughs and defuse the tension of it.

The team’s connectedness is best exemplified by its “brothers.” The Sienkos are related. Well, they think. The duo actually didn’t meet until they were paired up in a Minnesota state golf tournament round late in their high school careers.

Their parents soon figured out that Pete and Shane were third cousins. The golfers felt no need to investigate further.

“Who knows if we’re even third cousins,” Shane said, with a laugh.

The pair identifies more as friends than family, but they do often refer to themselves as the Sienko (pronounced “cinco”) brothers. There’s even at least one instance of a brotherly connection.

His junior year at St. Thomas, Pete walked into a computer science class and, without thought, plopped himself down in a random seat. The professor was staring at him, causing a discomfort that forced Pete to inquire what she was looking at.

She asked if he had a brother at the school. Pete confirmed he had a cousin there, and when he affirmed to her his name was Shane, she eerily responded: He sat in the same spot you’re sitting in right now.

The “brothers” are both seniors. Pete, who now boasts two top 10s this season, is a 2015-16 All-American while Shane has seen a huge surge in 2017-18 with a pair of top 10s in five starts. He has top 25s in all five showings, after only posting three all of the 2016-17 campaign.

Earlier this season, that uptick prompted one of Shane’s roommates to coin the term “Sienko Season” for the Sienkos’ double dose of potent play.

Sienko Season has caught on ever since.

“If they’re playing well, it’s Sienko Season,” Nowicki said, with a smile.

As for the team’s season, the Tommies now enter the winter off consecutive wins (one a conference championship, the other a takedown of a studded field) and a spot at NCAAs locked up.

A fall season that was unremarkable just a few weeks ago ends with the Tommies’ confidence through the roof.

“I think they proved to themselves that they can play with the best teams in the country,” Proshek said, “They are one of the best teams.”

If that holds true seven months later, Sienko Season and the Tommies may be star players at NCAAs.

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