As the pressure mounted in the late stages of the 3A Regional tournament, the Panthers rose to the occasion.
The Montezuma-Cortez golf team defended its home course, placing second in a field of 13 teams from all over the Western Slope, to land one of the two coveted automatic berths into the 3A State Championships.
Led by junior Thayer Plewe’s round of 70, good for the runner-up spot individually, the Panthers used steady rounds from their three underclassmen to propel them to the 3A State Championships at Spring Valley Golf Club in Elizabeth on Oct. 4th-5th.
After nine holes, things didn’t look so promising.
The Panthers chased Basalt and Gunnison for much of the front nine, outside of state qualifying position by six or more shots at different junctures in the round, but found traction in the second half to rewrite the narrative.
In a rematch of last year’s state championships, Plewe battled in a see-saw matchup with defending state champion Nic Pevny of Aspen, in the headlining group on the course. The duo each posted a birdie and bogey, along with seven pars, on the front nine to make the turn deadlocked at even-par.
Pevny birdied 10 and 11, while Plewe went even over the same stretch of holes, giving the Skier a two-shot lead. Plewe responded, however, in one of the most unlikely manners.
After hitting perhaps his worst shot of the day in his approach shot on the 14th hole, Plewe left himself a lengthy chip to the back pin location. Plewe stepped up and read the sloping green to perfection, as his chip shot clattered off the flagstick and dropped in for birdie.
It began a stretch of three consecutive birdies for Plewe, as he stormed from two back to take a two-shot lead heading to the final two holes.
In what has become one of the best rivalries on the course in any classification, Pevny answered one more time, tallying threes on the final two par-fours, including a 10-footer on the final hole to eclipse Plewe by a single stroke to take medalist honors with a round of 69.
“It was a frustrating day for me with my putter,” lamented Plewe, “but regionals is just the tournament that qualifies for state, and state is where they determine a champion, so I’m looking forward to that.”
While the battle for the individual crown unfolded, the team qualification drama built in the other pairings.
Sophomore Kaden Huff spearheaded the Panther rally, posting a masterful second half of his round to finish with an 83. After an up-and-down regular season, Huff brought out his best when the lights shined the brightest.
After starting out with six bogies to begin the round, Huff caught fire, parring six of the next seven holes. As the last of the Panthers to finish, his final couple of holes transformed into a dual match against his Basalt and Gunnison playing partners, where state qualification hinged on each stroke.
Recognizing what was at stake, a larger gallery followed the final grouping up the 15th fairway, Huff’s last hole of the day. The sophomore walloped a massive drive down the fairway on the par-five, setting himself up to drop his second shot just ten yards in front of the green. His chip shot left him four feet for birdie, which he ran straight into the heart of the cup, setting off celebration for his Panther teammates.
“I had no clue of the situation,” said Huff of the magnitude of late round heroics, “I try to not look at the scoreboard, and I didn’t want it to mess with my mental game.”
As for Huff, his big run mirrored that of his teammates, and his familiarity with the greens at Conquistador had a large part to play in his string of good holes.
“I started making some putts,” added Huff, overcoming his six-over through six holes beginning to the round, “and I started hitting higher quality shots. The way I finished the front nine definitely carried over to the back.”
It wasn’t just heroics from the two state-tournament veterans that lifted the Panthers – they benefited from a pair of first-years coming through. Vince Lopez, who had been pushing Plewe all season, as he was frequently finishing near the top of the leaderboard, overcame a slow front nine to close with eight pars in his final 10 holes to finish with an 85.
Lopez, one of the many Panthers that can be found honing in his game on Conquistador at all hours of the day, credited his knowledge of the course to help him rebound after his slow start.
“I knew that I could play well on the back nine,” said Lopez, “so it was nice to be able to come back after the tough opening nine.”
Classmate Gavin Frost also posted strong stretches around Conquistador’s par-72 layout, collecting seven pars, including three of his first five holes, to finish with a 90.
“All four of us stepped up,” commended Plewe of his underclassmen teammates, “and that’s the most important thing that we can take from the tournament today.”
The Panthers shot 238 as a team, finishing second to Aspen (225), who placed three in the top seven to win the region. Basalt finished two shots back of M-CHS (240), while Gunnison took fourth (242).
“Making it as a team was always the goal,” said Plewe, “and we’ve got a really young team. We’ll all be back next year – so the fact that all four of us are going to get to go state and get that experience, it’s really exciting.”
“We’ve worked our tails off to get back to this level, and show what we’ve got,” said Huff of his team’s accomplishment, “and this (return to state) has definitely validated it.”
While Plewe looks to contend for an individual title that eluded him last year, the Panthers bring their youthful squad to Elizabeth’s Spring Valley Golf Club in hopes of improving on their eighth team finish from 2020. The 36-hole event will take place on Oct. 4-5 to crown the 3A champions for 2021.