St. Thomas (Minn.), relaxed and already into NCAAs, takes commanding lead at Golfweek D-III Fall Invite

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St. Thomas (Minn.), relaxed and already into NCAAs, takes commanding lead at Golfweek D-III Fall Invite

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St. Thomas (Minn.), relaxed and already into NCAAs, takes commanding lead at Golfweek D-III Fall Invite

SCORES: MEN | WOMEN

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SANDESTIN, Fla. – A tilt against a loaded field at the Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational – a tournament that boasts the top seven teams in the country and 13 of the top 25 – sounds like a stressful test.

Hardly, for the 36-hole leaders.

“We’re on vacation, basically,” said St. Thomas (Minn.) senior Pete Sienko.

The Tommies are relaxed this week and it showed Monday at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort’s Raven Golf Club, as the team fired a 6-under 278 (the round of the day by three shots) to move from four behind to nine ahead of the field.

At 6 under overall, the Tommies are the sole team in the field under par with one round to go. Illinois Wesleyan is the closest pursuer at 3 over, with Huntingdon third at 4 over and first-round leader Concordia (Texas) fourth at 6 over following a 10-over 294 in Round 2.

What exactly has St .Thomas (Minn.) so relaxed?

It helps that there wasn’t a ton of outside expectation this week, considering the Tommies entered the Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational unranked. But there’s a bigger reason: St. Thomas (Minn.) has already secured an NCAA Division III Championship spot.

While most conference tournaments take place in the spring, the MIAC annually hosts its championship in the fall. Two weeks ago, the Tommies won the MIAC Championship by six shots, earning the team’s first conference title in six seasons.

That victory means the automatic NCAA bid has arrived in October, allowing the Tommies to exhale.

“This makes winter all the more enjoyable,” said Scott Proshek, head coach at St. Thomas (Minn.).

The Tommies may be treating the trip to Florida as a fun excursion, but the team still means all business. The Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational is the final fall event for St. Thomas (Minn.), and of course the desire is to finish the fall strong.

The field in Sandestin also offers the team some motivation to show their unranked status does not reflect their ceiling.

“The idea is to go prove ourselves,” said Sienko, leading the way in a tie for fifth at 3 under. “We can play with the best guys, the best teams in the country.”

That’s a far cry from where the Tommies were last month.

The group failed to win any of its first three events this season, culminating in a disastrous performance at the Twin Cities Classic. Proshek is weary of using qualifying for the conference championship, but he opened up a five-man competition for the final two spots for the MIAC.

The battle was amongst Riley Gannon, Derek Farrell, Owen Nowicki, Peder Larson and Jack Ritchay, with Gannon and Nowicki passing through.

With the roster set, the team started using a popular slogan to motivate themselves for the conference championship: “Win the day.”

After all, if a team tries to win each day, the rest will take care of itself.

“It was kind of something the clicked,” Sienko said.

It certainly worked Monday in Sandestin, where the Tommies won the day and then some. All five players are in the top 20, too, this week. Sienko is in front with his tie for fifth, while Gannon and Emmet Herb are tied for 10th at even par. Nowicki sits T-16 at 1 over while Shane Sienko is 2 over and tied for 19th.

It’s all the more impressive the team is on the verge of a second straight win considering the preparation, or lack thereof, heading into the Florida event.

Proshek noted his team was “physically and emotionally drained” after winning the MIAC – it was their fourth event in a month span – and his players needed some time to decompress.

The focus then turned to catching up on schoolwork, with golf taking a backseat.

“We had two weeks to prepare for this event and to be honest with you, they didn’t do a lot of golfing before this Florida trip,” Proshek said.

The semi-break seemed to do just what it needed, though.

While the Tommies can focus Tuesday on the goal of defeating a loaded field at the Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational, it’s fair to wonder how the team will stay motivated in the winter and spring before the season finale to which they are already guaranteed a spot.

That may be where the team’s large roster comes into play.

Due to a strong six-member freshman class, the Tommies boast a mammoth 18-player roster.

That’s certainly lent itself to more intense competition within the team and can help stave off any desire to coast.

The roster size has also served as a source of humor.

“We’re the second football team at St. Thomas,” Gannon joked.

It was just two years ago that the Tommies won the Golfweek Division III Fall Invitational. If they “win the day” Tuesday, it’s pretty likely that will happen again.

The 2015 victory in Sandestin remains Gannon’s fondest memory.

“That’s got to top the list,” Gannon said. “That was awesome.”

Maybe a new No. 1 will arrive Tuesday.

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