It’s late November, and the winter season has arrived. Just don’t tell that to Nokomis golfer Sam Smestad.

“He’s still playing right now,” Warriors coach Matt Brown said. “When it’s halfway decent out, he goes out and plays. He’s caught the bug, he loves the game and he wants to get better.”

And this fall, he did. After shooting a 90 in Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference qualifiers last season, Smestad blossomed into one of the top golfers in the state, carding a 75 in the KVAC qualifier to help Nokomis to its first state tournament berth in 18 years, an 81 to lead the Warriors to second place and then another 75 in the individual championships to finish third in Class B. For his performance, Smestad is the Morning Sentinel Golfer of the year.

“It was a year of growth, for sure,” Smestad said. “To shoot an 81 in team (championships), I was pretty happy with that. … To come back and shoot 75 for individuals was pretty much all I could do. I’m very satisfied with that.”

“He’s a quiet leader,” Brown said of the junior, who went 10-0-1 in matches while averaging a score of 39.9. “He doesn’t say too much, but he goes out and just puts up a good number every match.”

Given the way Smestad prepared during the summer, it was no surprise to see some strokes fall off his scores. Nokomis players are allowed to play at their home venue of Palmyra Golf Course for free and Smestad wore out the privilege, spending every moment he could find at the course. And when he was there, he was there for the long haul — it wasn’t unusual for him to spend an hour at both the practice green and driving range before playing, or to play two nine-hole rounds with a range session in between.

“I think it’s a perfect balance for me,” he said. “Really, just playing and putting yourself in certain situations, you get better. You can’t replicate every shot on the course, on the range.”

“He’s a course rat,” Brown said. “He was here every day during the summer.”

Smestad’s summer of dedication had two key results. For one, he learned the importance of a quality short game, and honed for himself a terrific sense of touch on and around the green.

“The chipping and putting are really what saved him a lot,” Brown said. “He’s sneaky long. … He’s in that 250-275 range, which is extremely good at that level. But his putting and chipping are his best assets.”

Smestad also gained a sense for course management, and started to thrive when it came to the mental side of the game. He didn’t get reckless or careless, and always made sure the shot he was taking set himself up for the best possible next one.

“It was really just leaving myself in good positions,” he said. “I had a gameplan before I played and I stuck to it. I didn’t get too aggressive, but when I needed to be aggressive I was. I just tried to trust the swing, because there was nothing I could change about it in the moment.”

With Smestad leading the way, Nokomis, which also featured qualifying individuals in Zach Hartsgrove and Lindsay Cote, became a resurgent team in a competitive class.

“He really just played at a different level this year,” Brown said. “He was just unflappable.”

That included when tournament season arrived. Qualifiers and championships are one-day deals, and Smestad began to feel the nerves that come before an all-or-nothing round. His coach’s words — one shot at a time — calmed him before the qualifier, however, and after a good bit of pre-round practice, he began to turn the jitters into a positive energy.

“I pretty much had the best range sessions I’ve had in a while,” Smestad said. “With all the anxiety and adrenaline I had, I was pumped for it. I was ready. I went out there and started birdie-birdie and I said ‘This is going to be a good day.’ ”

It was, as his 75 tied with Waterville’s Cody Pellerin for the best score in the KVAC B. He shot the 81 during the team championships at Natanis’s Tomahawk course, but returned there to fire a 75 that was good for third at the individuals — capping off a year to remember, both for himself and his team.

“It was all new to our team, and Sam was definitely the leader of that,” Brown said. “I’m just excited to have him back another year, because I think he’s just going to get better.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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