The emotional journey of UConn's Big East golf title: 'From the ashes to become champions'

Photo of Mike Anthony

It was well past midnight, Wednesday having become Thursday, when UConn golf coach Dave Pezzino parked the team van at the heart of the Storrs campus. Finally alone with his thoughts, and staring at the Big East championship trophy on the passenger’s seat, he began to cry.

“Just sat there,” Pezzino said. “And lost it.”

Pezzino had dropped off his players, hugged them all, was even picked up and joy-tackled one more time by freshman Caleb Manuel — another rowdy little celebration soon followed by reflection that left him overwhelmed.

How could it not?

Less than a year ago, the UConn program was basically a gimme putt from extermination amid a university budget crisis. Here was Pezzino on the other side, though, with 2021 joy prevailing over 2020 fear, the trophy strapped in by a seatbelt next to him as he came unraveled.

“I didn't want to crash in front of the team because I wanted it to be about them,” Pezzino said. “It was when I had a quiet moment that it just hit me, that this group of young men basically came from the ashes to become champions.”

UConn golfers, past and present, were already champions of inspiration, in ways of perseverance and self-preservation. Then this latest version of the program, the team that felt like it had won by simply being able to tee off again, added an exclamation point to the most trying and rewarding chapter of the Huskies’ 80-year history by winning the conference title at Streamsong Resort in Bowling Green, Fla.

The Huskies held off a late Marquette charge Wednesday during the final round, finishing the tournament with a score of 5-over par 869 for a six-stroke victory. It was UConn’s first Big East championship since 1994.

There was celebration at the course, both spontaneous and formal, all the hugs and high-fives carrying into a ceremony, where the trophy was delivered. From there, the travel party — Pezzino, five golfers and a program administrator — made the 85-mile drive to Orlando for a flight home, the final leg of an 11-month marathon.

Last May, men’s golf was one of numerous teams being considered for elimination.

This May, the Huskies will participate in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

“We had to be in this thing together,” said Pezzino, coach since 2007. “Without a doubt, it was never us against anybody else. Our whole team [the university], our big team, was struggling. It was, ‘How can we help?’ I remember the dates: May 22-June 24. I lived eating protein bars and drinking water in my basement at a folding table with a folding chair and a dry erase board on the wall, my makeshift war room, to make sure I reached out to the right folks.”

UConn wound up cutting four programs: women's rowing, men's tennis, men’s cross country, and men's swimming and diving.

Alumni and friends of men’s golf rallied, and more than $500,000 was raised — in the first week. Pezzino wouldn’t disclose the final total, but it was enough to keep the program in existence and put it back on solid ground.

“Let's put it this way,” Pezzino said of fundraising. “It's got two commas, and there are a couple gifts that were just so breathtaking. It was an onslaught of love and support. I got onto phone calls and people would rip into me about how the [athletic department] should do X and Y. You’d have to tell them, ‘I can't talk politics. I just need to know if you want to be part of the solution.’ Recapping all of this, I'm really getting emotional. We're low-hanging fruit. Golf is easy to cut and …”

Pezzino took three deep breaths.

“Wow,” he said, clearly tearing up again. “Wow.”

Jimmy Paradise, a freshman from Tampa who took up the sport just three years ago, birdied his first three holes Wednesday and shot 4-under 68, finishing the tournament 2-under 214. Manuel, the team’s No. 1 player and a freshman from Topsham, Maine, posted a 66 in Tuesday's second round and finished 1-under.

Junior Jared Nelson, of Rutland, Vt., finished at 1-over, senior Rodrigo Sanchez of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, shot 8-over and freshman Tommy Dallahan of Simsbury was 13-over.

Pezzino and his players were cool amid the 90-degree heat and mounting pressure late in Wednesday’s final round. An eight-shot lead became a one-shot deficit. It might have been slipping away.

“I don't know what came over me, but I had a complete calm,” Pezzino said. “Jared plugs one into the lip of the bunker on 17 and I said, ‘You good?’ He said, ‘Yup, I've got to put a club on it.’ It was the most casual thing. These guys really stood up. Jared made the most amazing 5 on a 590-yard par 5 into the wind. And Jimmy Paradise, he said, ‘Hey, hold my Gatorade.’ Just a remarkable group of young men. They love each other. They love their school.”

One of 81 teams in the NCAA field, the Huskies will learn their next destination May 5 during the selection show on Golf Channel. Six regional events will take place May 17-19, with the top five teams from each site (plus the top individual not on an advancing team) moving on to the national championships May 28-June 2 in Scottsdale, Ariz. Thirty teams there will be cut to eight after 72-holes of stroke play, and three rounds of match play will determine the champion.

Wednesday afternoon became chaotic — typical college golf stuff, starting with a race to the airport. Pezzino dropped off players at the terminal at 5:20 p.m. for a 6:18 flight, taking a call of congratulations from UConn president Tom Katsouleas as he unloaded golf bags, and went about dropping off the rental car.

Pezzino took a wrong turn and wound up stuck in a garage. Texts (225-plus) and emails (300-plus) kept rolling in. Pezzino ended up sprinting to the gate. After a stop in Washington D.C., the team arrived at Bradley International after 11 p.m. and headed to campus in the same Ford Transit that Pezzino drove to competitions at West Virginia and Penn State earlier in the season.

He pulled up to his Volkswagen Atlas at 12:25.

At 12:26, he was still in the van, crying, staring at the trophy, thinking about the past year, all who supported the program, the roster of nine players who stuck with it through the disruptions of a pandemic, the donations — from the big ones to the little ones, like the pledge of $50 a year for three years by a player at Skidmore College who happens to be friends with UConn players.

UConn golf lived.

UConn golf won.

“And all of that started to hit me,” Pezzino said. “UConn didn't want to do anything like [eliminate programs]. It's just that the real world was crashing around everybody. These were unprecedented times and we needed to be a positive part of the solution.”

Pezzino, a married father with sets of twins ages 12 and 17, did not sleep Tuesday night before the final round in Florida. He didn’t sleep the next night after returning to Connecticut, either. He’ll rest … at some point.

“I have practices to plan for the regionals,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for our guys to keep playing. And isn’t that why we did everything we did in May and June?”