Williamsville North Kevin Halpern surprised himself when he captured the Section VI boys' golf championship Monday in a playoff against East Aurora/Holland's Andrew LaCongo. It was a duel of underclassmen at picturesque Gowanda Country Club.
Halpern's coach John Burns, however, isn't shocked that the junior managed to extend the Spartans' run of success at the tournament, the qualifier for New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Tournament later this month.
Halpern captured medalist honors by making a bogey 5 on the first hole of sudden death in sunny but windy conditions. That wound up being two strokes better than sophomore LaCongo, who joins Halpern as a first-time state tournament qualifier. Each shot 9-over-par 117 through 27 holes.
The top nine finishers advance to the state tournament June 3-5 at Cornell University's Robert Trent Jones Course.
"Kevin is a very good golfer who I knew in watching him play it was just a matter of time before he matured to win a big event," Burns said. "He has all the right tools as far as driving it long and having a good short game."
Halpern flaunted all of those skills when it mattered as he extended the run of sectional champions to come out of Williamsville North. Current East Tennessee State freshman Ben Reichert won sectionals in 2015 and 2016.
On the decisive hole, Halpern boomed a drive roughly 295 yards that landed in the second cut but with a clear look at the flag from 85 yards away. LaCongo was in the fairway roughly 50 yards back but in a good spot, nonetheless, for his approach. LaCongo's shot toward the elevated green, however, fell short. Halpern's didn't, although he got a little too much ball as the seemingly nice shot rolled off the back slope toward the fringe.
That meant the title was still up for grabs but not for long.
LaCongo's next chip was just a hair too strong as it did not hold the fast green, trickling down the slope toward the same area as Halpern's ball. Halpern, shooting three, then chipped within 10 feet while LaCongo's fourth stroke stopped just behind Halpern's.
LaCongo missed his next two putts, meaning Halpern just needed only to three-putt for the win. His par putt just slid by the cup but he didn't miss on his next attempt.
"It's a great honor; I'm happy to be here," said Halpern, who finished fourth at the ECIC Championships in the fall with a 79 at Sheridan Park. "I'm kind of surprised I pulled through. Everyone played well, especially Andrew."
LaCongo put the pressure on Halpern – who fired a 34 on the first nine of the competition. LaCongo entered the final nine with a one-shot lead after firing a 76 but trailed Halpern by one heading into the last hole. LaCongo almost chipped in from the fringe for the win. He tapped in for par to force the playoff after Halpern's putt for the win just slid past the cup.
"I thought it was (going in)," LaCongo said of the near birdie chip. "It just wasn't stopping. The greens were pretty firm. It missed by 3-inches. … I knew I had to put it close to challenge him, put some pressure."
Halpern dealt with that stress just fine during the playoff.
"I was nervous at first but after my drive I was full of confidence," Halpern said.
"I wasn't playing as well coming into (Sectionals)," Halpern said. "I was playing shaky but I practiced for about a week. … I guess it worked."
There also was a playoff to determine the ninth and final state qualifier. East Aurora/Holland sophomore Matt Jeffe sank a long putt on the first hole of sudden death to earn the spot after finishing tied at 122 with Kole Maytum of Chautauqua Lake. The latter is the alternate.
The others who qualified for states include three who have made trips to Cornell in the past -- Matt Pawlak of Niagara Wheatfield, Mitchell Smith of Orchard Park and Mike Wells of Williamsville North. First-time state qualifiers include Medina freshman Ian Wagner, Ben Spitz of Orchard Park and Jake Roach of East Aurora/Holland. Wagner finished alone in third place with a 119.